How Famous Nurses Have Changed the Nursing Profession
The nursing profession has a long and interesting history forged by courageous people,
almost exclusively women. Before the middle of the 19th century, most nurses were
untrained and came from the lower class. Nursing was not considered to be a legitimate
occupation. However, during the latter part of the 1800s and beyond, there were a
number of forward-looking nurses who worked tirelessly to define and improve the
role of nursing and provide the building blocks for what it is today. Wars and military
nursing also have played a major role in the evolution of what nursing is today.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is a name that almost everyone in developed countries
knows. She is considered to be the founder of modern-day nursing. Well known for her
role in the Crimean War, she returned to Great Britain in 1857 as a national hero and
spent the rest of her career writing books, manuals and curriculum for nursing schools.
Her very interesting Notes On Nursing
outlines her nursing theories and emphasizes
sanitation, diet and psychological care of the patient. She was very much ahead of
her time and a forerunner of holistic care.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale who also served
in the Crimean War. To fulfill her nursing responsibilities, she delivered medicines
and supplies but also used herbal medicines and treatments that she learned from her
Jamaican mother. She combined traditional nursing care of the time with alternative
medicines and treatments that are gaining favor again today.
Another famous nurse was Clara Barton (1821-1912). She is best known for founding
the American Red Cross in 1881 but also served in the Civil War. Always concerned
with helping on a large scale, she organized the donation and distribution of medical
supplies for the wounded. Later, she used this experience to organize the Red Cross.
It is because of her that we have a national organization that responds quickly to
alleviate suffering when disasters strike.
When one thinks of famous nurses in history, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) does not
immediately come to mind, but she represents the many unknown volunteer nurses who
served in the Civil War. She worked many hours in Union hospitals, tirelessly giving
of herself as did so many other women of the time. She serves as an example of the
many auxiliary personnel and volunteers who assist the nursing profession.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) was a trailblazer in nursing history as the first
African-American professional nurse, and her influence is as inspiring today as it
was then. After graduating from nursing school at the age of 34, she helped co-found
the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) that merged with the
American Nurses Association (ANA) in 1951. She paved the way for minorities to enter
and enrich the nursing field.
Helen Fairchild (1885-1918) was only a nurse for a short time but made a great impact
on the way we view nurses in combat. In the brief time she was overseas, she wrote
over 100 letters to her family describing wartime conditions and the bravery of the
nurses. Because of these letters, there is a much better understanding of the value
of nurses in military service.
The very controversial subject of birth control was tackled head-on by Margaret Sanger
(1879-1966) throughout her nursing career. As to be expected, she had many critics,
including the Catholic Church. Her legacy is Planned Parenthood that is still controversial
today. She is an example of the power of public health nursing and of what just one
person can do.
Most people know Walt Whitman (1819-1892) as one of the world's best-known poets but
are surprised to learn that he was a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Many of his
later writings, including Memoranda During the War,
chronicle that time in history.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) served as Superintendent of Army Nurses in the Civil War, but
her greatest achievement was as an advocate for the mentally ill. Her efforts still
influence how mental institutions are run and how the mentally ill are treated today.
The modern hospice movement traces its roots to Cicely Saunders (1918-2005), a British
nurse, physician, social worker and writer who dedicated her life to palliative medicine.
So many people with terminal illnesses benefit from her research and teachings that
define hospice care today.
Lillian Wald (1867-1940) was the founder of American community nursing. As an activist
championing equal care for all, she is another example of how just one person can
influence the lives of many. Her basic belief was that the world is just a larger
view of a culturally diverse neighborhood.
Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841-1898) was a very interesting person who fought in the Civil
War disguised as a man. Later, she worked in Washington, D.C. as a nurse and her
work is recorded in Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army
Linda Richards (1841-1930) was the first American trained nurse, graduating from the
New England Hospital for Women and Children School of Nursing in 1873. She went on
to establish nursing schools in the United States and Japan as well as instituting
the first method of charting and keeping records for hospitalized patients.
Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965) was very concerned about rural health care and began
family care centers in Appalachia. A nurse-midwife, she devoted her life to the care
of the poor and founded the Frontier Nursing Service to ensure that people across
the United States would have access to health care.
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) was the first African-American to write memoirs about
her wartime experiences. As an army nurse, she cared for black Union soldiers during
the Civil War and wrote of that time. She later went on to teach former slaves in
Eddie Bernice Johnson, born in 1935, is the first registered nurse to be elected to
the United States Congress. As an African-American senator, she champions health care,
racial equality and fair housing.
These are just a few of the brave individuals who have shaped nursing into what it
is today. Nursing is no longer a handmaiden of medicine. It is an independent profession
that stands on its own. Granted, there are still challenges to be met, but just as
nursing duties and responsibilities evolved over time, these difficulties will be
overcome. No longer a profession just for women, many men are finding wonderful career
opportunities in nursing as well.