Nursing is a continually evolving profession. Over the centuries, influential nurses
have helped to shape and mold nursing into the profession it is today. Most of these
famous nurses were not theorists or scholars, but rather were ordinary nurses who
through their individual works impacted and changed the face of nursing today.
Historically, nursing duties have consisted of caring for the sick, injured, wounded
or dying. While the practice of nursing has evolved over time, providing care to those
in need remains a central component of nursing responsibilities. These famous nurses
have helped to define the role of the nurse, as well as expand horizons and nursing
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is best known as a great American poet, but his experiences
as a nurse during the Civil War greatly influenced his works. Whitman volunteered to
work as a nurse after he was deeply moved witnessing the suffering of the soldiers in
the battlefield hospital at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Reflecting on his years of nursing
during the Civil War, Whitman penned "The Wound Dresser", part of the Drum Taps poetry
Clara Barton (1821-1912) is best known as the founder of the American Red Cross. Her
first involvement in the nursing profession came as a result of the Civil War. She
was appointed as the "lady in charge" of the hospitals at the front of the Army of
the James. After the war, she was introduced to the Red Cross while in Geneva, Switzerland.
Upon returning to the United States, she launched a campaign to gain recognition of
the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government. She was
the first president of the American branch of the Red Cross society when it was officially
formed in 1881. Today the American Red Cross is the largest supplier of blood and blood
products to over 3,000 hospitals across the country with more than 1 million volunteers
and 30,000 employees.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) remains an iconic figure of the American reproductive
rights movement and is widely regarded as the founder of the modern birth control
movement. Sanger's early career was spent in New York City, where she was witness
to frequent unwanted pregnancies and self-induced abortions. In 1916, in Brooklyn,
New York, she opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. Nine days
after she opened the clinic, she was arrested, and later convicted of illegally distributing
contraceptives. An appeal of her conviction in 1918 resulted in the issue of a ruling
that allowed physicians to prescribe birth control. The publicity surrounding her arrest,
trial, conviction and appeal sparked birth control activism across the country. In 1921,
she founded the American Birth Control League, which later evolved into Planned Parenthood
Federation of America.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1187) was a nurse, teacher and activist who helped to create the
first generation of American mental asylums. Dix began her career as a teacher, opening
two schools in Boston, until her health failed. She later traveled to England and was
introduced to the British lunacy reform movement. Upon return to Massachusetts, Dix
found the mental health system to be underfunded and unregulated, leading to widespread
abuse. Spurred by the abuse she witnessed, she fought to improve the standards by which
people were cared for in the asylums. In 1854, at the culmination of her efforts, the
Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, was part of the first wave of public mental
health in the United States, and provided for the establishment of asylums.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) is best known as the wife of President Abraham Lincoln
and former first lady of the United States. Abraham Lincoln is well known for his
role during the civil war, but Mary had an important role as well. In 1861, Mary
volunteered as a nurse in the Union hospitals. She was also a frequent visitor to
the hospitals, bringing flowers and food, writing letters to the soldiers, reading
to them and even raised funds for a Christmas dinner.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was a Jamaican nurse best known for her involvement in the
Crimean War. She created boarding houses in Jamaica and Crimea where she could care
for the sick and wounded. Her healing methods were founded in her knowledge of herbal
remedies and folk medicines, but were later expanded upon traveling to London. While
in London, Seacole requested to be sent to the Crimea war front, but was denied. She
eventually traveled there using her own resources, where she built a hotel using
salvaged driftwood, packing cases and iron sheets where she could attend to battlefield
wounded. After the end of the Crimea war, she returned to England destitute and in poor
Cicely Saunders, (1918-2005) is best known for her role in the birth of the hospice
movement. In the past, hospice centers were funded religious orders for the dying
poor, offering food, shelter, and minimal medical care. Impacted by the death of both
her lover and her father, Saunders resolved to open a hospice center. In 1967, St.
Christopher's Hospice opened. It was the first hospice center in the world, founded
on the principles of holistic care to meet the spiritual, psychosocial and physical
needs of the dying. Cicely died at the age of 87 from cancer, at St Christopher's
Hospice, the hospice she herself had founded.
Lillian Wald (1867-1940) is known as the founder of community nursing. Wald dedicated
her nursing career to the care of the public community. Her work helped to establish
nursing in public schools and orphanages. She visited patients at home and in orphanages,
even moving into a room nearby so that she could better care for them. In 1893, she
coined the term "public health nurse" to describe a nurse who works with the public
Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841-1898) was a Canadian-born woman who served in many roles
during the Civil War for the Union Army. Edmonds was strongly patriotic and wanted
to contribute to the war effort, but in order to do so, disguised herself as a man,
"Franklin Flint Thompson". Her first role within the Union Army was as a male nurse.
Later, Edmonds became a spy and was instrumental in providing important intelligence
to the Union leaders. After the war, she penned "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army"
which was highly successful, selling over 175,000 copies.
Eddie Bernice Johnson
Eddie Bernice Johnson (1935-) began her nursing career as a psychiatric nurse in
Dallas, Texas. After 16 years of nursing, she entered the political arena. She is
currently Texas' 30th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.
She is the first registered nurse to be elected to the United States Congress. Her
knowledge of health care needs has guided her to author legislation regulating diagnostic
radiology centers, requiring drug testing in hospitals, and prohibiting discrimination
against and improving access to health care for AIDS victims.
Linda Richards (1841-1940) is the founder of nursing education in the United States.
She became the first formally trained nurse in America after graduation from the
American Nurse's training school at the New England Hospital for Women and Children
in Boston. Her career led to the formation of nursing training programs in the United
States and Japan. She also pioneered the first system for keeping individualized
medical records on hospitalized patients.
Mary Breckenridge (1881-1965) helped to improve nursing care for mothers and babies.
After her initial nursing training at New York City's St. Luke's Hospital, she traveled
to Europe where she trained with British and French nurse-midwives. As there was no
training available to become a midwife in the United States, Breckenridge attended
the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies program and became certified by the Central
Midwives Board. Upon return to the United States in 1925, she founded the Kentucky
Committee for Mothers and Babies, which later became the Frontier Nursing Service.
In 1939, she opened her own midwifery school.
Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) served as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. She
served for three years moving with her husband regiment. In her off hours, she would
teach the soldiers to read and write. Her own education began with attendance of a
secret school taught by two African American women. Her education was later expanded
upon by two white youths, who knowingly violated the law against the education of
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) was the first professionally trained African American
nurse. During her nursing career to continue to support equal rights and opportunities
in nursing for minority groups. In 1896, became a founding member of Nurses Associated
Alumnae of the United States and Canada. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association
of Colored Graduate Nurses, which later merged with the American Nurses Association in
Each of these famous nurses in history influenced the nursing profession, but began
their careers as ordinary people. Through their everyday actions as nurses, as well
as the passion they brought to their work, nursing has evolved into the profession
it is today. Each of these nurses recognized a need and fought to mold and shape
the nursing profession in order to meet that need. They paved their own paths as
nurses, both improving the care of their patients and impacting the evolution of
nursing care around the world. These famous nurses will, no doubt, not be the last.
Future famous nurses will likely start their careers as these others did, with ordinary
skills and a desire to help people, but will make an extraordinary impact on the field