Reading a recent book on Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The “Euthanasia Programs“ by Susan Benedict and Linda Shields reminded me the that there is often a reluctance to research the darker sides to our professional histories. I remember Dave Holmes once telling me that he received some really aggressive and distressing criticism from his colleagues when his paper Killing for the state: The darkest side of American nursing was published. It seems that people within nursing took exception to someone questioning the morality of nurses who made people comfortable on death row in preparation for the electric chair and the lethal injection.
In some ways I can understand this kind of reaction from people who have spent their career promoting a positive image of their profession. But, at the same time, it suggests we are only comfortable being called a critically-informed profession up to a point, and that point ends when we start to look into the less palatable things that people have done in their professional history. Are we only allowed to talk about the good things that physiotherapists do?
Researching nurses working on death row or in Nazi Germany would raise some spectacular questions about the brutality of one person towards another and the banality of systematic institutional abuse, but what about the less obvious, quotidian, matter-of-fact abuses that pass beneath the threshold of unspeakable horror? What about the custom-and-practice hurts and unexamined professional rituals that are designed to exact a positive outcome but which carry outcomes that we’d prefer to ignore?
I wonder if we ought not attempt a professional reflection on the harms we have done to people in the name of therapy and rehabilitation?
Holmes, D., & Federman, C. (2003). Killing for the state: The darkest side of American nursing. Nursing Inquiry, 10(1), 2-10. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1800.2003.00162.x