Many orders for the care of special needs of humanity were established during the thirteenth century. It is from this period that most of the religious habits worn by women originate. They used to be considered rather cumbersome for such a serious work as the nursing and care of the sick, but in recent years quite a different view has been taken. The covering of the head, for instance, and the shearing of the hair must have been of distinct value in preventing the communication of contagious diseases. There has been a curious assimilation in the last few years of the dress required to be worn by nurses in operating rooms to that worn by most of the religious communities. The head must be completely covered and the garments worn are of material that can be washed. It will be recalled that the head-dress of religious being, as a rule, of white, on which the slightest speck shows, must be renewed frequently, and therefore must be kept in a condition of what is practically surgical cleanliness. While this was not at all the intention of those who adopted the particular style of head-dress worn by religious, yet their choice has proved, in what may well be considered a Providential way, an excellent protective for the patients on whom they waited, against certain dangers that would inevitably have been present, if their dress had been the ordinary one of the women of their class, during these many centuries of hospital nursing by religious women.
In a word, then, all the features which characterize our modern hospitals, found a place in the old-time institutions for the care of the ailing, which we owe to the initiative of the Church and religious orders, and above all, the Popes. While we are accustomed to hear these old-time institutions spoken of slightingly, that is because our knowledge of them was not as detailed as it should be, until the recent interest in things medieval revealed many details previously misunderstood. The hospitals of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were much better than those of subsequent centuries down practically to our own time. The reason for this decadence is rather complex, but it evidently occurred in spite of the Church and the Popes. Much of it was due to the fact that, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the political governments interfered in the work of charity and hospital management, and always to the detriment of it. The greatest triumph of the Church during the earlier centuries is to be found in the magnificent organization of the hospital system and the anticipation of so many things in the organization of hospital work, the care of patients and even the prevention of contagious disease, that we are apt to think of as essentially modern.
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)