The History of Travel Nursing Is Not What You Think

Health Carousel Travel Nursing
February 14, 2022
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Both travel nurses and staff nurses share common origin stories. It is a rich history that traces back to 1854, the Crimean War, and Florence Nightingale. Nightingale founded the nursing profession when she and her 38 volunteers were working in a field hospital in Turkey.

1917 showed the earliest beginnings of travel nursing. According to the Vassar University website, it was Julia Lathrop who first called for nurses to travel to rural areas. She wrote that there were “funds to employ these nurses, but there are no nurses to be had.” During this time, the available options for travel nurses were limited to inaccessible rural areas or public health centers. Nurses used boats, dogsleds, and the like to reach these locations. The public health centers were treating tuberculosis, typhus fever, influenza, and similar diseases. (Not the most attractive travel nursing package!)

This type of travel nursing teetered along in the early 20th century until the 1970s. offers a glimpse into the past, relaying that there was only one university program at the time. The nursing profession was still working to establish a standard of education and licensing system. During their schooling, nurses worked as part of the staff in hospitals and received government stipends to do so.

In the 1970s, nurses wore starched dresses, heeled shoes, and the ever-glamorous nursing caps (available in eight styles!). Believe it or not, this was also the era that drove the emergence of travel nursing as we know it today.

Let the Good Times Roll

Big events always bring a higher census at local hospitals, and the 1970s was no different. InSync, a nurse consulting company, notes that New Orleans saw an enormous boost in hospital admissions during Mardi Gras, as hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the city for the festivities. To help staff the overloaded hospitals, New Orleans brought some temporary nurses in. The plan worked, and the city continued this year after year.

Establishment of the Industry

The 1980s saw a shortage of healthcare professionals across the nation, and New Orleans’ idea stood out like a shining star.

According to the American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN) website, the shortage spurred travel nursing to become a legitimate industry. Other hospitals began advertising for temporary nursing assignments to help fill the gaps between census and staff. In addition, travel nursing agencies appeared to coordinate between nurses seeking assignments and hospitals in search of nurses.

The Knowledge Doubling Curve

Maintaining optimal staffing goes beyond having enough bodies to fill the schedule. It can also mean obtaining enough experience to successfully run a floor or unit. Peter Lundell writes about a theory called The Knowledge Doubling Curve. This postulates that until 1900, human knowledge doubled every 100 years. By the end of World War II, it doubled every 25 years. Today, knowledge doubles every 13 months.

This demonstrates that knowledgeable staff are more important than ever. Travel nurses can help by contributing diverse experience and up-to-date skill sets to hospitals.


Jennifer McDonald, FNP-BC is a nurse practitioner with 17 years of healthcare experience. She has worked in medical research for six years, teaches nurse practitioner students, and spent many years in acute and family care. Her love of medicine is rivaled only by her love of coffee and running with her endlessly energetic puppy.

Health Carousel Travel Nursing

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