Believe it or not, the nursing profession as we know it, is less than 150 years old! Before that, hospitals/medical practice were relatively unsafe and many people just treated their sickness at home. It wasn’t actually until the 19th century that nurses even began having any formal training at all–it was typically just nuns or military personnel (during wartime) that treated people with injuries or illness. In the span of time that more modernized nursing practices have been in place, we’ve seen some notable nurses through the years. Some have faced adversity, others have just been straight-up innovators in the field, and some are just downright infamous.
We all know Florence Nightingale—she’s essentially the mother of modern nursing education. Nightingale has several names that have been bestowed upon her such as “The Queen of Nurses” and “The Lady with the Lamp.” Her nicknames say it all–she was a revolutionary woman. After having treated countless British solider in the 1800’s, she realized her mission in life was to teach proper hygiene for patient-care.
Clara Barton is perhaps the most widely-known American nurse of all time. After all, we all know about her main accomplishment of founding the American Red Cross in 1881 at the golden age of 60. However, she originally began working as a teacher before hitting the nursing profession during the Civil War where she was affectionately known as the “angel of the battlefield.”
Mary Breckinridge became an RN in 1910. During her career she practiced in Washington D.C., Boston, and France where she was part of the American Committee for Devastated France. While she was in France, Breckinridge decided that her new passion would be practicing midwifery. She started in London and eventually brought it into the United States. Today, she is credited with bringing the midwife practice to America. Breckinridge created the Frontier Nursing Service which brought prenatal/postnatal care to the people around eastern Kentucky. Her organization would provide care and transport newborn babies on horseback. For their services, they asked for little payment in return.
Mary Ezra Mahoney
Another memorable RN named Mary was Mary Ezra Mahoney. She was the very first African-American woman to become a nurse–or even finish nursing training at all. In fact, Mahoney was so good that she was one of the only 4 out of 42 people that ended up finishing the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was allowed to attend nursing school as a black woman because they loosened their practices when they saw how talented she was. To combat discrimination that black nurses faced in that time, in 1908 she helped to found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN).
Martha Jane Cannary (“Calamity Jane”)
I HAD to include Calamity Jane on this list of famous nurses in history. Although to be fair, she’s had quite a few other professions as well. She may be most known for hanging around Wild Bill around the time where she dressed like a dude and her favorite hobbies included swearing, drinking, and shooting. As she explored the Frontier, she worked as a miner, an oxen driver, a cook, a gold prospector, a prostitute, and a NURSE. When smallpox broke out in 1878, Jane apparently nurses 8 men. Legend has it, she saved 5 of them—perhaps due to Epsom salts and cream of tartar concoction.
Another famous nurse that was known more popularly for other professions was Walt Whitman. In addition to his time spent as a teacher, a journalist, and of course one of the best-known American poets–he was also a volunteer nurse for three years during the Civil War. Sure, he never received traditional nursing training but he was able to aid in healing wounded (both body and soul) by listening attentively to their stories and writing letters to their families back home.
In the old days, contraceptive education was a total taboo. That is, until Margaret Sanger came onto the scene and completely led a fresh movement towards more progressive sexual dialogues. Born in 1916 to a large Irish-Catholic family, Sanger had seen the devastating effect 18 pregnancies had on her mother’s health. This may have been what inspired her to leave home for nursing school and ultimately open the very first birth control clinic in the U.S. (even though it was illegal….) Later in life Sanger would found both the American Birth Control League as well as the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. And, just six years before Margaret Sanger would pass away, the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive (“the pill”) in 1960.
Florence Guinness Blake
In the 20th century, Florence Guinness Blake contributed to the advancement of education for nurses. Most of her career focused on caring for children and teaching nurses how to take care of pediatric units. She created the first ever advanced pediatric nursing program at the University of Chicago. Plus, she wrote several textbooks for RNs. She was a huge advocate for children and revolutionized the way we look at pediatric nursing.
Through history, we’ve seem some pretty interesting famous nurses. (Maybe one day, you’ll even become one!)