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Making a Difference: Famous Nurses

Nurses have played a vital role in healthcare for quite some time. Though nurses continually make a difference in many ways, some of these individuals have earned a lasting place in nursing history. Nursing has come a long way since Linda Ann Judson Richards became America’s first professionally trained nurse in 1873, but nurses were saving lives even before then.

Florence Nightingale

Despicable sanitary conditions during the Crimean War prompted Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to work 20 hours a day tending to the sick and wounded soldiers in the English camps. She and her fellow nurses fought cholera, typhoid fever, frostbite, and dysentery in the wards. The "Lady of the Lamp,” as she was called, was the only nurse allowed to work after 8 p.m. Her dedication and concern for patients spurred many men and women over the years to follow in her footsteps to attend nursing schools and begin “hands-on” nurse jobs.

Clara Barton

The “Angel of the Battlefield,” Clarissa “Clara” Barton was born in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her nursing career began at the tender age of 11 when the shy, but studious, child nursed her older brother, David, through a serious illness. She opened her own “free” school at 25 after pursuing a liberal studies education focusing on writing and languages in New York. She worked in the U.S. Government Patent Office before aiding soldiers at the forefront of the Civil War. She refused any salary for her untiring work, rallying supplies and care for the soldiers instead. She became Union nurse superintendent in 1864 and worked on the frontlines of 16 battlefields. After the war, she searched for missing servicemen and founded the American National Red Cross, establishing both wartime and peacetime work. Without ever attending any nursing program, she received the Iron Cross, the Cross of Imperial Russia, and the International Red Cross Medal. She lived by two mandates: to not be concerned with things outside of one's control and to be controlled under pressure. She retired to Glen Echo, Maryland, and died in 1912.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

After 15 years of working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts as a cook, laundress, janitor and nurses’ aid, Mary Eliza Mahoney decided to earn a nursing education. She entered into the RN program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children and graduated in August 1879. She was one of four women to graduate, and the first black woman to earn professional nursing licensure. She opened the door for African-American nurses after cofounding the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. Although she received no special recognition for her many accomplishments during her lifetime, she has been honored many times since her death in 1926 from breast cancer, including being inducted to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger, known for her women's rights activism, fought her entire adult life to legalize birth control after believing that her mother died “from having too many children.” Bitter after nursing many immigrants who had experienced “back-alley” botched abortions, she became even more adamant about limiting how many children women had to the point of writing a pamphlet called “Family Limitation.” Sanger, born Margaret Louise Higgins in 1879, wrote about sex education and women’s health before being federally indicted on federal postal obscenity laws, prompting her to flee to Europe until 1915. She founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952, serving as its president for seven years. Sanger, who had three children, died in 1966, living to see the U.S. Supreme Court legalize birth control for married couples a few months before her death.

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

Retired Brigadier General Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was the first black woman general in the U.S. Army. Born in 1927, the 16th Army Nurse Corps chief received her star in 1979. She joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1955, and served as a staff nurse in Japan and as chief nurse in Korea before becoming Assistant Dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing from 1976-1978. She aided in the development of new methods for sterilizing medical tools before becoming Director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing in 1974. She retired from the Army in 1984, still serving as adjunct nursing professor at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, as well as an advisor to many Surgeon Generals.

Virginia A. Henderson

Virginia Avenel Henderson formulated the “Need Theory” of nursing. Four major concepts made up her theory: the individual as a whole, their environment, their health, and nursing them. Henderson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1897. She earned a diploma in nursing from Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Hospital Army School of Nursing in 1921. She earned a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1932, and a master’s in 1934. Five years before her death, she wrote the 5th edition of Harmer’s nursing, incorporating her 14 components of basic nursing care, including assessment, diagnosis, plan, implementation, process, and evaluation. She died in 1996, but her theories are still used in nursing programs today.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix spent her life caring for the mentally ill. Born in April of 1802 in Hampden, Maine, the eldest child of Joseph and Mary Dix did not live a carefree childhood. Her alcoholic father and mentally ill mother maintained an unstable home, and left the care of Dorothea’s two younger brothers to her. She and her brothers left to stay with their wealthy grandmother, but she did not want to adhere to her grandmother’s idea that she should be turned into a “lady of wealth.” Dorothea preferred caring for the poor, the imprisoned, and the mentally ill. She passionately fought for better conditions for mental health patients in the United States and abroad. She never attended nursing school, yet visited them, advocating change in the methods of care used for those suffering from mental illness.