The nursing profession gives current nurses some big shoes to fill, with so many famous innovators in our history. Some are famous for being pioneering nurses, excellent nurses or brave nurses—sometimes all three. Some are (or went on to become) famous/successful in other professions, such as writers, nuns, gunslingers and a number of other fields. Let’s reflect on the rich and varied history of nursing by looking at some of the most famous nurses ever, in no particular order:
- Clara Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War and given special duties by President Lincoln. Barton worked with the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War and organized the American Red Cross in 1881, at the age of 60 and led the group until 1904.
- Dorothea Lynde Dix founded the first public mental hospital, the North Carolina State Medical Society in 1849, and became Superintendent of about 6000 Union Army Nurses in the Civil War. Dorothea Dix nurses were some of the only ones to help Confederate soldiers as well.
- Calamity Jane, a.k.a. Martha Jane Cannary, American frontier woman, Army scout, she dressed and shot a gun like a man. but she also nursed smallpox patients in the Black Hills of South Dakota. While working as a Pony Express rider, she volunteered to care for local men quarantined with smallpox, helping 5 of 8 to recover.
- Florence Nightingale was one of the most famous nurses ever, partly by reason of her development of sanitation protocol during the Crimean War in the 1890s. Known as "The Queen of Nurses," "The Soldier's Friend" and "The Lady With the Lamp," she helped start the Army Medical College and Nightingale School for Nurses and also opened the Women’s Medical College with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Nightingale also authored the book Notes on Nursing. Nurses Day is celebrated annually on May 12, her birthday.
- Walt Whitman: When the Civil War broke out, Whitman visited the wounded at NY hospitals and in 1862, moved to Washington, DC, to take care of his brother, wounded in the war. Whitman stayed on, doing volunteer nursing work through 1865, listening to the wounded men’s stories and sending word to families. The poet estimated he visited 600 hospitals and 100,000 wounded Union and Confederate soldiers.
- Lillian Wald founded the Visiting Nurse Service, the first public health nurses in the US. She helped to get nurses placed in public schools and also helped establish the National Organization of Public Health Nursing, the National Women's Trade Union League and the Children's Bureau to help end child labor.
- Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American RN. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years before being admitted into nursing school. Mahoney headed the Howard Orphan Asylum for African American children in NY. She was one of the first members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, co-founding the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908, later part of the ANA (American Nurses Association). She was inducted into the ANA and National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- Mary Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service and introduced nurse-midwifery, including pre-and postnatal care, to the US. She felt called to nursing after the death of her two children, becoming an RN in 1910. Traveling to France with the American Committee for Devastated France after WWI, she met/learned from British and French nurse-midwives and later worked in Kentucky’s Appalachian mountains. Visiting poor, rural families, her nurses traveled on horseback, delivering babies and providing family care.
- Edith Cavell: The courageous “martyr nurse” was executed by firing quad in 1915 for espionage. Her crime: helping more than 200 allied soldiers to escape from occupied territory during World War I. The British nurse headed a Red Cross hospital and nursing school.
- Virginia Avenel Henderson, a graduate of the Army School of Nursing in 1921, received her master’s degree in nursing education from Columbia University and later taught at Yale in the 1950s. Known for her development of nursing theory, known as the “Henderson Model,” an international standard for nursing practice, she’s been called the "First Lady of Nursing."
- Claire Bertschinger worked for the International Red Cross during 1984 Ethiopian famine and helped inspire Bob Geldof to create the Live Aid Concerts for famine relief. She also worked in Panama, Papua New Guinea and other disadvantaged areas. She chronicles her work in her bookMoving Mountains. Bertschinger received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Human Rights in Nursing Award and other honors.
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