What is Compassion?

Article Summary by Sarah Chaney

Today, this trait is thought to be central to nursing. Policymakers, healthcare staff and politicians alike have debated the topic over the past decade. They have asked whether compassion can be taught or is caring an inborn trait. How might one measure or test someone’s ‘emotional intelligence’? And is compassion lacking in modern healthcare?

Almost everyone, however, assumes that compassion has always been central to nursing, and that the emotions associated with good care have not changed throughout history. My research into the history of emotions in nursing shows that this simply isn’t true. Before 2009, even the word compassion was very little used in healthcare in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the decades my article focuses on, nursing was regarded quite differently. Emotional traits were thought important to the ‘ideal’ nurse, as they had been in earlier decades when the emotions of care were strongly linked to religious love and faith. In interwar England, ‘sympathy’ was the most used term to describe the emotions implicit in care.

Sympathy was not the same as the modern compassion. It was generally linked with tact or diplomacy, which highlights the stress laid on patient management in this period. Nurses used their sympathy, employers suggested, to manipulate unwilling patients into accepting care or behaving well in hospitals. Class was important here. In the UK, before the founding of the National Health Service, hospital patients tended to be working or lower middle class. Nurse leaders hoped to increase the numbers of middle-class women in nursing and so presented sympathy as a middle-class trait that was central to the professional nurse.

This model of sympathy is very different from the way ‘compassion’ today is associated with patient satisfaction or choice. Understanding the different models of emotion in nursing history, then, warns us not to try and view the emotions of care as something that people just ‘happen’ to have, but realise that they are invariably dependent on context, training and cultural expectation.


Listen to the author discuss this research via the Centre for the History of Emotions podcast below:

Read the full article at the Medical Humanities journal website.


Sarah Chaney is a Wellcome Trust funded post-doctoral researcher on the ‘Living With Feeling’ project at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London. Her first book, ‘Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm’ (2017), explored the history of self-injury from the Victorian era to the present day. Her new book, ‘AM I NORMAL? The 200-year search for Normal People (and why they don’t exist)’ is due out in 2022 with Wellcome Collection. She is passionate about public engagement with medical humanities, and is also the exhibitions and events manager at the Royal College of Nursing.

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