Nursing in the Boer War

When reviewing the literature for my research, what was published about nursing in the Boer War was either autobiographical, and thus the story of a single individual1, or a short overview, largely concentrating on the recruitment and numbers of nurses2. A review of data sources showed that there was a large amount of data on these nurses. Most of it was data on single nurses, such as their listing on the Queen’s South Africa (QSA) Medal Roll, entries on census records and appearances in contemporary nursing journals. Much of this data, and indeed the techniques for finding, corroborating and storing it, fitted into the genealogical domain3. Family historians have developed robust techniques for creating histories of the individuals that make up their family. Historians have developed a different, although related, methodology called prosopography4. This methodology allows historians to use the data available on many individuals whom collectively form a population of study, and to draw inferences from the data to illuminate that population.

Prosopography in historical research

The term prosopography is used to describe the database of the individual subjects (The Prosopography) as well as the method of analysing the data – prosopography or a prosopographical approach.

As with most research methodologies there are different definitions of prosopography although they share common characteristics. It has been described as a collective biography that describes the external features of a population group that has something in common5. A questionnaire is then used to collect biographical data from the population, and from this data answers may be found to historical questions.

The population being studied has also been called a homogenous group6, a group of historical characters7 and a specific milieu8. The key concepts that emerge from the literature are the defined population with a linking common characteristic, the collection of biographical and other data using a questionnaire and database, the processing of the data, and lastly, the drawing of inferences from the data.

Prosopography is differentiated from genealogy by its focus on external characteristics. Genealogists are looking for explanations of individuals within a family context, whereas those using prosopography are interested in the external characteristics generalised from the data gathered on a group of people. Prosopography brings together (relatively) large numbers of descriptive individual biographical studies into quantitative and statistical research on the combined total of these biographical studies. The nature of the material being studied may also allow for qualitative examination, and together all of this is transformed into a historical narrative that makes sense of the group being studied9.

Historians using prosopography can be seen to fall into two groups10. The first group have used prosopography for studying ‘elites’ such as the Roman nobility11, or the Greek Lacedaemonians12. They focus on meticulous detail about genealogy, business and political interests, usually displaying relationships as case studies. The data is used to show unity and cohesiveness of a particular group and the impact they had as a group (usually) on politics and government13. The second group use a social science philosophy to look at much larger groups, particularly where there may be much less detail about individuals in the study. This is a view of history steered by popular movements rather than being steered by “elites”. The social science view requires a more social history dataset. This may be more superficial and broader than that used by those studying elites. They are likely to study larger populations who were less likely to come to the attention of historians, such as The Puritans and the Growth of Science14. The quantity of data allows a more statistical analysis15. Prosopographies are usually published as short monographs16, or collected into a series like Medieval Prosopography, a journal published by Western Michigan University. In their research on General Practitioners, Digby and Sweet17 identified prosopography as a methodology that lent itself to a comparison of the lives and careers of a cohort of professionals, enabling access to a non-elite health professional group.

Prosopography in nursing research

Prosopography is a relatively underused tool in nursing research. Bullough et al18 used prosopography to examine eminent American nurses of the past. They felt that “when applied to the history of nursing, prosopography is particularly valuable because while information on institutional and organisational history, laws, regulations, standards of practice, and nursing curriculum is relatively complete, little is known about the nurses themselves.” This was echoed by Hawkins19 who used prosopography to illuminate the ward nurses at St George’s Hospital, London and who contrasted this approach to those of other nurse historians. Sweet20 used prosopography in a different way to study the lived experiences of District Nurses. She used oral history as her subjects were living although mostly retired. This allowed her to engage with people who might otherwise be ignored by historians. The use of prosopography in all three of these studies allowed the researchers to look across a cohort of nurses and to get a sense of what it is they had in common either as demographic backgrounds or as experiences as nurses, or both.

Prosopographical methodology

Adopting prosopography as a research method requires the following steps21:

  • The determination and definition of the target population and the formulation of specific working hypotheses and specific historical questions concerning the target group;
  • The determination and definition of the geographic, chronological and thematic boundaries;
  • The translation of the general research objective into a specific structure;
  • The building of a systematic and uniform prosopographical database, using primary sources and literature;
  • The presentation of the research results.

Population under study

The population under study is those individuals involved in caring for sick or wounded British soldiers during the Boer War 1899-1902. Although these individuals were involved in nursing, and most are described as nurses, there are some issues with these terms. As discussed elsewhere on this site, nursing in this period was undergoing many changes including a debate on the merits of regulation. The Army, and specifically those charged with maintaining records of those involved in caring for sick and wounded soldiers, did not, or could not, differentiate between those with nursing experience, those with recognised nurse training, and those whose circumstances led to them being involved in nursing care. All of these ladies were categorised as nurses. The one common factor they all had was their service being recognised with the award of the QSA and their entries on the QSA Medal Rolls. All those engaged in nursing the sick and wounded were awarded the QSA so this award identifies the larger population and not an elite.

The population being studied can be defined, therefore, as those individuals listed on the QSA Medal Rolls as being employed in the nursing care of sick and wounded soldiers during the Boer War 1899-1902.

Research question

In building and analysing this prosopography the intention was to discover

what was it about the collective body of nurses caring for the sick and wounded during the Boer War that shaped the future of military nursing?

In order to identify the collective characteristics of the nurses in the study it was necessary to collect information about them as individuals in the first instance. Deciding what information to collect was a mixture of influences from previous prosopographies and the pragmatism of what information was available about them. As the research progressed further information became available and thus the ‘questionnaire’ or database structure was adapted to incorporate new sources of data.

The collation of individual characteristics such as age, social class, nursing and military experience helped to draw out the common features within this group of nurses that when set within context helped to explain the way in which they organised themselves and functioned as nurses during the Boer War. The data collected was very broad from purely demographic to more expansive information relating to their experience in South Africa and beyond. In addition, vignettes of individual nurses showed how the data collected applied to an individual and helped to bring the data alive in a way that the collective examination could not.