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Nursing & Health

Historic nurses that changed the world

December 21, 2016 by Lindsay Racen
Historic Nurses

We're celebrating the amazing nurses who dedicate their careers to caring for others by honoring the lives of those who paved the way for the health care industry. These iconic women, many of whom were educators and esteemed authors, represent the history and purpose of modern medicine. Their leadership and influence extend far beyond their individual efforts by inspiring others to move forward to serve and care for those in need.

The Mother of Mental Health

Although this is not a nickname commonly attributed to Dorothae Lynde Dix (1802-1887), we fondly recognize her as one of the original family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners. After a tough beginning, becoming victimized early in life by her alcoholic family and abused father, she fled home and taught poor neglected children. This difficult experience motivated her to commit to social welfare and ultimately become the historic author, teacher and reformer who changed the world.

Dix founded the first public mental hospital in America and became the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. She went on to help create dozens of new institutions across the US and in Europe and changed people’s perceptions of the mentally ill populations. After serving with the administration of military hospitals in the Civil War, this amazing nurse established a reputation as an advocate for female nurses around the world.

The Angel of the Battlefield

The mission of the American Red Cross is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. All the miracles and wonderful work that the organization has done can be attributed to its founder, Clarissa Harlowe Barton (1821-1912), or Clara, as she wished to be called. Her iconic organization tells her story in depth, from the Civil War battle field, through Europe and back to her American homeland.

Learn more about the Red Cross, Clara and her history by reading her full biography on the organization’s website. It dives deeper into the earlier years of international relief and her eclectic background of interests including education, prison reform, women’s suffrage, civil rights and spiritualism.

The Revolutionist

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) made history by becoming the first African American professional registered nurse. As an original east coast native, she began working at the New England hospital for Women and Children in her youth. Interestingly enough, although not surprising given the traditionally discriminatory times, she initially did not work as a nurse, but rather held positions varying from, cook, janitor, washerwoman and an unofficial nurses aid. It wasn’t until the age of 33 that she began a 16-month nursing program at the hospital.

She successfully received her nursing certification in 1879, making her the first African American in history to earn a professional nursing license. She was one of only four graduates from an original student base of 42. Her career as a private care nurse brought her up and down the eastern seaboard in addition to serving as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Long Island, New York. Working to provide good service to all patients, in 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (later the American Nurses Association) to help other nurses of color get into the profession. After 40 years of nursing service, Mahoney retired to continue on her revolutionary path and became among the first women to register to vote in Boston, Massachusetts.

The First Lady of Nursing

Virginia Avenel Henderson (1897-1996) is recognized as the “First Lady of Nursing,” a distinguished title that is not shared by any other. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, she grew up to become an amazing nurse and educator. Her credentials are of course impressive and her awards are plentiful. She was educated at the U.S. Army School of Nursing (1921) and Teachers College, Columbia University where she completed her bachelor of science in 1932 and her master of arts in 1934. She went on to teach at the prestigious school for nearly fifteen years. In addition, Henderson held honorary doctorate degrees from thirteen universities and was selected at the American Nurses Associations Hall of Fame.

She has left a wealth of publications that chronicle her thoughts on nursing practice and education as well as the results of her research and the process that led to her all-important Nursing Need Theory. This unique view was that the nurse cared for patients by performing actions that they could not do because lack of will, strength or knowledge. However, she went on to advocate that the role of the nurse was to make the patient independent as soon as possible. Seeing the nursing process as a logical approach to problem solving, she promoted the pursuit of higher education in the arts and sciences, giving nurses the background to accomplish their goals.

The Modernist

In our most recent history, Claire Bertschinger (1953 - Present) is already being recognized as one of the Top 10 influential nurses in history. She could barely read or write until she was 14 years old due to a severe case of dyslexia but was inspired one day after watching the story of an English missionary to China who got caught up in the Japanese invasion on TV. She decided right then and there that she wanted to serve the world and help others. She is most known for her advocacy on behalf of suffering people in the developing world. Her work in Ethiopia in 1984 inspired Band Aid and subsequently Live Aid, the biggest relief program ever mounted.

Bertschinger has been honored with many awards including the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Committee of the Red Cross, named after a fellow health leader in history. In 2005 she received the Women of the Year Window to the World Award and was again honored two years later with Human Rights and Nursing Awards from the International Centre for Nursing Ethics (ICNE). In addition to these career achievements, she achieved her master’s degree in Medical Anthropology in 1997 and received honorary degrees in Education, Health and Sciences from numerous universities.



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