Historical encyclopaedia of nursing By Mary Ellen Snodgrass ABC-CLIO 354 pages £39.95

The beginning of the new millennium is an appropriate time to publish a book that traces the history of nursing from ancient times to the end of the 20th century.

According to the preface, the plan is to present the backgrounds and careers of noted healers along with the eras of conflict and social change, particular healing methods of ethnic groups, innovations in treatment, and the war on disease. Certainly the author, for whom annoyingly there is no bibliography, is to be congratulated on the sheer amount of work and extensive research that she has put into this fascinating book.

The individuals cited who have made a substantial contribution to the advancement of nursing, midwifery, public health and social welfare throughout the world are mainly from the US and Britain, and religious healers such as St Hildegard.

Not only nurses, but members of the general public will be familiar with some of these names - such as Florence Nightingale, Dr Cicely Saunders, Marie Stopes and Mother Teresa.

Other nurses with a British connection such as those of Mary Jane Seacole, and Princess Tsashai Haile Selassie, may be more unfamiliar but their history is equally fascinating. The author also gives a balanced picture of the work of some of the more renowned figures - for example the criticism of Mother Teresa for her anti-abortion stance towards pregnant victims of the mass rape of Muslim women in Pakistan, as well as the praise she has received.

Although the substance of this book is the contribution of individuals, also included are detailed essays on nursing during periods of conflict. These range from the work of religious and lay nurse volunteers during the Crusades to the founding of the Red Cross and the establishment of mobile army surgical hospitals during combats in the 20th century. Other interesting contents include nursing under communism, Nazi nurses, gender issues in nursing, and the curandera - a shaman or community healer.

The creation of the district nursing service is discussed in the section on public health nursing, but a disappointing omission is the failure to mention the history of the health visiting profession as a separate entity.

Surprisingly, Ms Snodgrass praises the introduction by a public health nurse in Malaysia of powdered milk to bottle-feed at risk infants, a practice now known to have cost the lives of thousands of infants in developing countries.

Also disappointing is the omission of a separate section on the history of the school nursing service, including the appointment in London in 1892 of the first school nurse, Amy Hughes .

There is an extensive bibliography and timeline of landmarks in nursing, starting from 3000 BC, and a comprehensive index.

Not only nurses, but also anyone wanting to know more about famous figures in nursing or of nursing through the ages, will find this book very useful.

Although its price makes it unlikely that many individuals will buy it, a copy should be available in every public, nursing and medical library.

June Thompson Part-time health visitor and medical journalist.