Lessons from the history of nursing… Who was Concepción Arenal?


I recently returned from a conference in Spain about the economic value of nursing where I spoke about many promising international models of community nursing, including some that were not so new. What sparked the most conversation later was the final image of my presentation with the words of the Spanish feminist writer and activist Concepción Arenal: How many centuries will it take for reason to arrive at the conclusion on [social] justice that the heart instantly understands.

Surprisingly little has been written in English about this remarkable woman, whose work in social reform and the development of nursing was simultaneous with, and comparable to, that of Florence Nightingale. Born in 1820 (the same year as Nightingale), she was the first woman to attend a university in Spain (auditing law school classes dressed in men’s clothing). An early and influential advocate for women’s rights, she wrote extensively about issues affecting marginalized populations including those living in poverty and in jails.

I am just beginning to read Arenal’s original writings in Spanish, and am struck by the parallels between her writing and current conversations in nursing about social justice and cultural humility. For example, her manual for visiting (nursing) the poor begins with the philosophical questions: What is pain? (Ch. 1), What are we? (Ch. 2), and What is poverty? (Ch. 3)  Before moving on to the central chapters on the theory and practice of visiting (nursing) the poor and how to approach and handle different situations with humility, respect, and empathy, while empowering the poor to improve their condition and lives. The book ends with chapters on the importance of having respect for the pain [of the poor] (Ch. 14), and the spirit of the sick (Ch. 15).

Please join me in reading and reflecting (here in the comments on this NurseManifest blog) on the writings of Concepción Arenal. We hope to build connections with colleagues in Spanish speaking countries and bilingual academic settings around the world. Looking forward to learning more about your thoughts inspired by Arenal’s writings (comments welcome in English or Spanish).

Un cordial saludo,


P.S. Please also reach out if you are interested in working on a Spanish version of the NurseManifest Manifesto.

References and Further reading:

  1. Josep Bernabeu Mestre – Encarna Gascón Pérez (Univ Alicante). Historia de la Enfermería de Salud Pública en España (1860-1977). [The History of Public Health Nursing in Spain] Capitulo 2. Full text pdf (162 pages)
  2. Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library Collection for Concepción Arenal, including her collected works in digital format http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/portales/concepcion_arenal/autora_biografia/

Direct links to a few of Arenal’s books that I’ll be reading and would love to discuss with others:

3 thoughts on “Lessons from the history of nursing… Who was Concepción Arenal?

  1. Thank you, Peggy! It was great to see you too. Talk about timing – Camara Jones, the new President of the American Public Health Association just spoke about her vision for the organization to tackle racism, inequality, and social justice in this short (3 minute) video.


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