Within today’s medical community, be it in hospital, hospice, home care or the frontline of battle, nurses are the highly trained and compassionate individuals who hold everything together. Yet theirs is an occupation that has only won respect incrementally, evolving from a volunteer calling in the 19th century to a complex, many-pathed profession in our time. The years in between have seen great struggle, low pay, long hours, sexism and actual progress.

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“Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence” treats the subject from roughly the establishment of the Maine State Nurses Association in 1914 to the present. A team of writers with impressive nursing experience and many academic degrees all but guarantees the correctness of the book’s data. Consider that Valerie A. Hart is an author and professor of nursing at the University of Southern Maine; Susan Henderson taught for 35 years at Saint Joseph’s College before retiring in 2011; Juliana L’Heureux was a home care and hospice manager and editor of the ANA-Maine Nursing Journal for two years; and that Ann Sossong is a professor of nursing at the University of Maine, Orono.

Together the four provided a very readable text for the general reader. However, it must be noted that the six chapters making up the frame of the text are chronological, while the substance of each chapter is made up of fascinating interviews with scores of nurses.

The result is less a comprehensive history of Maine nursing than a smorgasbord of very substantive, enjoyable but sometimes overlapping events. The index proves truly necessary in this case. A glossary of terms and associations would have been a useful addition.

The introduction teases the reader with mention of Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, the volunteer “nurse” credited with saving numerous Madawaskan families during the Black Famine of 1797.

But after this, the authors share only a smattering of early Maine nursing history with no reference to native born Dorothea Dix (save a facility named after her) or much about the Civil War years.

Martha Eastman’s doctoral dissertation of 2006 includes marvelous statements from early public health nurses including Clarissa Johnson who wrote in 1915, “She comes in working dress and is very willing to give a bath, make a bed, change a dressing.”

Throughout we see the tasks faced: influenza, polio, HIV/AIDS, the growth of medicine and health care, and the expansion of nursing education to meet the changing situations and needs.

The interviews are enlightening. We witness a Maine nurse in a 1960s Boston hospital asking to listen in on a “famous heart surgeon” during rounds and being told “you are not needed here.”

She did not say anything, “but that helped to frame for me what I wanted to do, and I really started to think about the value of nursing,” said Margaret Hourigan, who has continued to achieve throughout her distinguished career, earning a doctoral degree and serving as chair of the Nursing Department at Saint Joseph’s College.

Backs are scrubbed when needed, but nurses work on such things as genomics, global health and informatics. They are, as this book strongly proves, no longer “handmaidens of physicians.”

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored or co-authored seven books, including “The History of Sweetser-Children’s Home” and “The AIDS Project: A History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.