Unsung Heroes in Nursing History

Unsung Heroes in Nursing History

We’ve all heard the story of Florence Nightingale, the famous “Lady with the Lamp” who is revered as the founder of both modern-day nursing traditions and nursing education. Yet there are other nurses who influenced our profession greatly, either by breaking through barriers or advancing the profession in subtle ways. These are just a few of the unsung heroes in nursing history

The volunteers

At one time sick people were cared for at home by family members. When nursing first evolved, it was not a respectable profession and was often associated with “women of ill repute.” This didn’t change until the mid-1800s, when respected and high-profile individuals began stepping into caring roles as a community service. You may be surprised to learn that these people include:

  • Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), the famous first lady, worked tirelessly as a volunteer nurse, tending to injured soldiers during the Civil War. This was very much a selfless act for a woman of her affluence and education level. She’s known not only for assisting army doctors, but for the empathy she showed through acts like hand-feeding, reading to, and writing letters for wounded soldiers.
  • Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the famous poet, spent three years working as a nurse during the Civil War. He was motivated to become a caregiver after his brother was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg, providing comfort to both Union and Confederate soldiers during 600 hospital visits. An archive of his correspondence includes a letter to a friend, in which Whitman wrote, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield.”
  • Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane (1852-1903), was working as a Pony Express rider when smallpox broke out in her South Dakota town in 1878. She cared for eight of the men who fell victim to the dreaded disease; five of them survived despite the lack of medical supplies on the frontier. 

The famous firsts

The nurses who broke new ground or shattered barriers have also helped to create the foundations of modern nursing practice. Here are a couple who stand out: 

  • Ellen Dougherty (1844-1913) was literally the first Registered Nurse in the world. New Zealand was the first country to legally require registration upon completion of nursing training. Ellen had trained there at Wellington Hospital from 1885 to 1887 and was registered on January 10, 1902.
  • Linda Richards (1841-1930) was the first American to train professionally as a nurse. She started working as a nurse back when nursing education was virtually non-existent, but then enrolled as the first student in the first U.S. training program at New England Hospital for Women and Children, graduating a year later in 1873. She never lost her love of learning, later training in England under Florence Nightingale, where she learned the association between germs and infection. Back in the U.S., she helped to set up nurse training programs in several cities, becoming the superintendent of the Boston Training School for Nurses. While working at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Linda developed a system for tracking the status of each patient—an early medical record.

The pioneers

Today, it’s hard for us to imagine a time when nursing education was minimal and nursing practice didn’t include the core concepts of holistic care we take for granted today. Here are some of those who helped to develop nursing theory and make nursing a respected profession:

  • Lystra Gretter (1858-1951) is credited from shifting the model of nursing education from an on-the-job apprenticeship to a three-year academic program. She wrote one of the earliest standardized nursing textbooks, and created the ethical oath known as the “Florence Nightingale Pledge.”
  • Virginia Avenel Henderson (1897-1996) is known as “the first lady of nursing” and her contributions are often compared to those of Florence Nightingale for their influential effects. She is credited with rewriting and modernizing the standard nursing textbook of the era to reflect an era of antibiotics and medical advances. In a later edition, she described a patient-centric model of nursing care that helped to standardize nursing practice. 
  • Lydia Hall (1906-1969) further developed patient-centric nursing theory with her concept of “core, cure, and care.” She was a pioneer in the area of nurse autonomy and nurse-driven care, helping to shift the profession away from a task-focused model to one that emphasizes professional judgment and responsiveness to individual patient needs, in order to improve patient care. 

Nursing Through the Years

Read the other Nursing Through the Years articles to learn more about the American Sentinel team.

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