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Development of the New Zealand nursing workforce has been shaped by social, political, scientific and interprofessional forces. The unregulated, independent and often untrained nurses of the early colonial period were succeeded in the early 1900s by registered nurses, with hospital-based training, working in a subordinate role to medical practitioners. In the mid/late 1900s, greater specialisation within an expanding workforce, restructuring of nursing education, health sector reform, and changing social and political expectations again reshaped nursing practice. Nursing now has areas of increasing autonomy, expanding opportunities for postgraduate education and leadership roles, and a relationship with medicine, which is more collaborative than in the past. Three current challenges are identified for nursing in New Zealand's rapidly evolving health sector; development of a nursing-focused knowledge culture, strengthening of research capacity, and dissemination of new nursing knowledge.