Nursing has a long and storied history, although specialized nursing as we know it today has only been around for 150 years or so. Prior to that, nursing was generally something done by midwives and mothers, with little to no specialized training, but these days you can study for your nursing degree online! Over those 150 years, a number of nurses have made a name for themselves by changing the profession itself to change our perception of what a nurse is or does to put a public face on the profession. Here are ten famous nurses that helped to change and develop the profession.
While not a particularly good nurse, Dix was a great campaigner for the rights of the mentally ill. Having seen the poor conditions of mentally disabled persons during her work in prisons, she went to court to fight for improvements in the conditions in jails and poorhouses. Her fight led to the modernization of facilities in America and England, although she was defeated in her attempt to open up a large, centralized facility on American soil. Later in life, when the Civil War broke out, she became the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses.
A British nurse, she was recruited to train nurses in Belgium and was the matron who brought modern methods to the country. When World War I broke out, instead of returning to her native England, she stayed in Belgium to help care for the wounded. After Germany occupied the country, Cavell continued to practice nursing, providing care for both German and Allied soldiers. She used her position to help over 200 Allied soldiers escape over the course of 2 years but would pay the ultimate price for it – she was court-martialled and executed by the Germans for treason, despite international pressure for her release. This execution led to her becoming a propaganda figure for military recruitment and an international icon that increased favourable sentiment towards the Allies from previously unaffiliated countries.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States. In 1879, Mahoney was the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing.
Mary Todd Lincoln
While she found more recognition as the wife of President Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln spent much of the Civil War tending to wounded Union soldiers in the Washington D.C. area. A staunch abolitionist, she was also willing and able to provide care to escaped slaves and influenced the establishment of the Sanitary Commission during her husband’s presidency.
Even as modern nursing developed, it was not reaching into the poor, rural areas of the country. Mary Breckinridge came from the opposite side of the spectrum, born into an influential, urban household and enjoying a privileged childhood. However, after losing both of her children in childhood, she moved to become a registered nurse, serving as a nurse in World War I. Returning from the war, she focused on rural Kentucky, establishing the Frontier Nurse Service to bring maternal and neonatal care to poor, rural areas.
Starting out as an educator, Clara Barton pushed for the first free school in New Jersey, then moved from there to the U.S. Patent Office, the first woman to work as a clerk at an upper level in the government. After the Civil War broke out, she felt it was her duty to help the soldiers. She delivered bandages and supplies to the front line, cleaned field hospitals, and eventually tended to wounded soldiers. After the war, she spent time lecturing, then went abroad for some relaxation. During this trip, she went to Switzerland and was introduced to the Red Cross, and she also worked in hospitals at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. After the war, she returned home to develop the American Red Cross under President Arthur, opening the first society in 1882.
No one person is more responsible for modern professional nursing, and no nurse is more widely recognized. International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday, and new nurses recite the Nightingale Pledge. While her abilities as a field nurse have been called into question, there is no denying that her understanding of statistics and infection and the response she developed to combat field conditions is based on this knowledge. Her collection of data would lead to changes that would greatly lower the mortality rate of British soldiers in the Crimean War. These changes would be picked up across the world and would help to reduce casualties in hospitals in the future.
Known as one of America’s premier poets and literary minds, Whitman became involved in nursing by covering the Union hospitals for journalistic purposes. He had helped friends and family prior to the war with informal nursing visits but had no real training. Seeing the wounded in the hospitals, Whitman was affected and took the rest of the war off from writing full-time, instead devoting his time to the care of wounded soldiers in and around the capital. These years of nursing on the Washington and Virginia battlefronts would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan
Based on real-life nurses from the Korean War, Hot Lips is the most famous fictional nurse to grace the large and small screen. As part of the movie and sitcom MASH, she humanized the face of the modern war nurse. Played by Sally Kellerman in the movie and Loretta Swit in the television series Hot Lips provided insight into what army nurses had to deal with during the Korean War emotionally and professionally.
Virginia Avenel Henderson
Trained and taught at the Army School of Nursing and later getting a Master’s degree from Columbia University, Henderson would develop nursing theory and define the roles of nurses in health care. Many of her published works, based on her hands-on experience as a visiting nurse and nursing instructor, would go on to be used as the basis for a number of nursing textbooks.