Virginia Henderson: The Nightingale of Modern Nursing

Virginia Henderson: The Nightingale of Modern Nursing

The legacy of Virginia Henderson (1897-1996) is captured in her prolific Need Theory, in which she defined what nursing practice should be and how a patient’s independence should be the highest priority. But she had many other contributions to nursing and nursing science that influence how nurses practice today.

A Desire to Help

Born in Missouri, Henderson was educated by family and at her uncle’s Army School of Nursing at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she received a Diploma in Nursing in 1921. She started her career as a nurse at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service but followed her heart and desire into teaching in 1923. Henderson worked as an instructor at the Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia from 1924 to 1929 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1932 from the Teachers College at Columbia University, followed by a master’s degree in 1934.

Building Her Research Skills as an Author and an Editor

After earning her master’s, Henderson joined her alma mater, the Teachers College, as an instructor, while continuing to practice nursing at New York teaching hospitals. She stayed there for 14 years, during which time she produced and contributed to some of her most important works.

Henderson revised an edition of Textbook of the Principles and Practices of Nursing in 1939 and completely revised it for the 1955 publication, describing nursing as an endeavor to help patients be free of help as quickly as possible. It became the textbook embraced by hospital nursing schools across North America for many years thereafter.

Yale University School of Nursing

In1953, Henderson joined Yale University School of Nursing as a research associate in which she was charged with surveying and assessing the status of nursing research in the U.S. She discovered that there was an absence of organized literature of clinical nursing studies and was directed to oversee the creation of the Nursing Studies Index, which became a four-volume index of nursing research published between 1900 and 1960.

Henderson’s Nursing Theory

Henderson defined nursing as “the unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.” The idea was that nurses devote themselves to patients and helping them learn to care for themselves once again.

Her theory had four major concepts: the basic needs of the individual, the environment in which the individual lives (and its conditions), the definition of a health based on an individual’s ability to function independently, and the basic concepts of nursing carried out by the nurse in caring for the patient.

Basic Principles of Nursing Care

In 1969, Henderson published Basic Principles of Nursing Care at the age of 72—a book derived from her earlier essay of the same name commissioned by the International Council of Nurses. She revised that edition several years later, incorporating the contributions of other nurse pioneers. Some have said that this publication is considered the 20th century equivalent of Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing. It is available in 29 languages.

A Lasting Legacy

Although Henderson is the recipient of many honors and awards—including many honorary doctorate degrees, fellowships (from the American Academy of Nursing and other organizations) and the prestigious Christiane Reimann prize from the International Nursing Council—what she is best known for is a dedication to nursing excellence. 

“Desiree Bonnet, assistant professor at American Sentinel University and Family Nurse Practitioner in Florida, says that Virginia Henderson made an indelible impact on the field of nursing throughout the 20th century. “Ms. Henderson understood something about patient needs long before it was considered mainstream: that there are many factors that impact a patient’s health, including biological and environmental influences,” says Dr. Bonnet. “Helping a patient achieve independence is every nurse’s goal when it is possible. Ms. Henderson’s theory was very adaptable to many patient settings and her work contributed to the greater body of nursing research that guides nurses today.”

Nursing is for Caring Individuals

American Sentinel’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice programs help nurses advance their knowledge and become curious, interested nurses who are dedicated to advancing patient care.

Visit us online or call 866.922.5690 to learn how more about how American Sentinel’s BSN, MSN and DNP programs can help advance your career and reach your goals.


Learn what American Sentinel has to offer:

Let us answer any questions you have. Fill out the form below, and we will be in touch quickly.

By clicking the button above, Post University has your consent to use automated technology to call, text and email you regarding its educational services at the contact information provided above. It is not a requirement to provide this consent to attend Post University. Post University’s Terms and Privacy Policy apply.