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 edicines 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 Georgia.

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.