In South Africa, men cared for men

Of all the professions, none has been more strongly identified with women or stigmatized among men than nursing.

And yet, there was a time and a place where male nurses were the rule, and nobody thought much of it.

This was the biggest discovery Shula Marks, professor of the history of southern Africa at the University of London, made in her research on the phenomenon of men nursing South African mine workers from the late 19th century well into the 20th.

Marks, herself a South African, described her research in a talk Dec. 7 at the School of Nursing.

The men in question were not technically nurses, but black orderlies, supervised by white female nurses. The orderlies worked in hospitals built and run by South Africa's mining companies, which at their peak employed 500,000 to 600,000 black men to work the mines.

The race of the workers being treated was one reason for the unusual situation. Marks stated that "if you start out with the issue of white female hands on black bodies and black female hands on white bodies, you get to the heart of the South African problem" in nursing.

The other reason stemmed from the attitude of the nurses themselves. Originally, the mines had recruited black women to serve as "probationers" under white supervision, but the women proved less docile than the men. "They raised a fuss and made demands," Marks said.

In interviews, Marks found that the black orderlies took pride in their work and expressed gratitude for their jobs. They also did not see the job as calling their masculinity into question: "We were men nursing men," as one put it.

Marks explained that she was drawn to study the miners hospitals because she is "troubled by the gendered stereotypes attached to nursing" - the idea, for instance, that it is the "proper profession" for women or that, as British medical societies maintained as recently as the 1970s, "men make inferior nurses."

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Originally published on January 14, 1999