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Modern British nursing developed from the mid-nineteenth century and was seen as a morally purifying activity and as a potential force for social cohesion. It was also considered an activity fit for women. However, it embodied a fundamental tension within Victorian sensibility between a kind of rationalistic utilitarianism and a faith in transcendent values. This paper explores this tension and suggests that it can be detected in current debates about practice and evidence in nursing in the contemporary context of a rise of managerialism in public services.