For much of its early history, the nursing profession did not receive the credit it so richly deserved. Public perception of nurses and the profession as a whole was not great; with most nurses coming from what was perceived as the lower class and therefore regarded as little more than maids in a hospital setting. Nursing was not seen by many among the general public as a desirable and legitimate career. That perception began to change during the 19th century as developments within the field of medicine started to save more and more lives and the work of nurses was focused upon during times of conflict.
Without doubt nurses and the field of nursing as a profession continue to make a huge impact on society. Here are some of the pioneers of the nursing profession considered by many as among the most influential in history.
Florence Nightingale: born May 12, 1820. Early on in life, Florence Nightingale developed a keen interest in nursing, but her parents refused to allow her to train; as they considered nursing not to be a worthy occupation for a woman of Florence’s social standing.
Eventually her parents gave in to her wishes and allowed her to study. In 1851, she went to Germany to take three months of nurse training. On her return to England she took up a position at a hospital for ‘gentlewomen’ in London. Soon after came the outbreak of the Crimean War and Nightingale was approached to train and oversee a team of nurses who were designated to provide care to injury stricken soldiers in the military hospitals in Turkey.
After the war, she established the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St Thomas' Hospital in London, and nurses were trained here to be sent to hospitals across Britain. In turn the newly trained nurses were sent to spread the word of Nightingale’s nurse training. Nightingale published her theories on nursing training in 1860 which were widely influential. Her concerns about sanitation, military health as well as hospital planning helped to set in place the practices that are still in use within the field of hospital care today.
Margaret Sanger: born September 14, 1879. Her father, Michael Higgins, influenced Margaret to stand up for what she believed in and to always speak her mind. The death of her mother, after 18 pregnancies, 11 live births and seven miscarriages inspired Margaret to become a nurse and to specialize in the care of pregnant women.
In 1900 she attended New York's White Plains Hospital to commence her nursing studies. In 1912, Sanger found a means to provide information to women about sex education and women’s health by giving up her nursing career to write a column for the New York Call, entitled, “What Every Girl Should Know.”
In 1916 she opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. The clinic offered a range of services aimed at providing women with much needed support in counseling, birth control information and supplies. Shortly after Sanger and the clinic’s staff were all arrested and charged with “maintaining a public nuisance,” news of which helped to bring the controversy of birth control into the public eye and ensured that Sanger found a new group of supporters from among like-minded individuals.
In 1917, Sanger started her second magazine title, Birth Control Review, and in 1921, founded the American Birth Control League. Its mission was to provide education, by delivering printed literature and a series of lectures, on the subject of the prevention of pregnancy.
Sanger and the American Birth Control League finally opened the first legal birth control clinic, known as the Clinical Research Bureau in 1921.
In 1927 Sanger helped to organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva with the aim of gaining increased worldwide understanding and acceptance of the need for information, advice and practical help with birth control for women.
In 1936 a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals finally freed doctors from the Comstock Law, which meant that they were allowed to prescribe and dispense contraceptives.
Margaret continued to write, publishing numerous books, including My Fight for Birth Control and Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. She died on September 6, 1966.
Clara Barton: born Dec. 25, 1821. Aged just 15, a well-educated Clara Barton began teaching at nearby schools. In 1850 she offered to teach without salary to allow students to attend schools where otherwise they would have had to pay.
In 1853 she became the first woman in America to hold such a government post when she took a job as a copyist in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. She worked at this position until 1861 when the Civil War began and she dedicated herself to helping the Federal troops by appealing for provisions, collecting and storing them in Washington before distribution to the front line.
In 1862 the U.S. Surgeon General allowed her to travel to the front, though not specifically in the role of a nurse. Her skill at being able to obtain and distribute provisions to the troops, done so with considerable courage, made her presence vital to the war effort.
In 1865 with the endorsement of President Lincoln, Barton undertook the massive task of locating missing soldiers, setting up the Bureau of Records in Washington, tracking down some 20,000 missing names.
In 1877 she wrote a founder of the International Red Cross, offering to lead an American branch of the organization, and in 1881 incorporated the American Red Cross, naming herself as president.
Just a year later her efforts brought about the United States’ ratification of the Geneva Convention, and she attended conferences of the International Red Cross as the American representative.
As a Red Cross worker, she attended the scene of many natural and man-made disasters in the US and abroad and sought to provide help for victims of flood, fire, famine and war until her late 70s.
Clara Barton died on April 12, 1912.
Mary Eliza Mahoney: born May 7, 1845. Mary became interested in nursing when she was a teenager, working for fifteen years at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts where she undertook a variety of roles from cook to janitor and finally an unofficial nurse's assistant. In 1878, at the age of 33, she was allowed to begin her studies as a nurse trainee within the hospital's own nursing program. She completed the course, one of only four graduates from a class of 42 who had started the program sixteen months earlier. After graduation she worked mainly as a private duty nurse for the next thirty years all over the Eastern United States, ending her nursing career as director of an orphanage in Long Island, New York.
In 1896, Mahoney became one of the founding members of the mainly white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (which would later become known as the American Nurses Association or ANA). In 1908 she was the cofounder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), and gave the welcoming address at the first ever convention of the association. Mary Eliza Mahoney died January 4, 1926.
In 1936, she was awarded a posthumous honor by the NACGN in recognition of her contribution to racial integration in nursing, and in 1976 she was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame.
Anna Caroline Maxwell: born March 14, 1851. Her path towards nursing began at New England Hospital in 1874, where she worked as a matron. After moving to England for a brief spell in 1876, she returned to the United States and enrolled in the Boston City Hospital Training School for Nurses.
After graduating in 1880, Maxwell was offered a position at Montreal General Hospital in order to establish its nurse training program. A year later, in 1881, the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Training School for Nurses in Boston hired her as its superintendent.
In 1889, Maxwell was named director of nursing at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, and a year later, moved to the Presbyterian Hospital of New York. In 1892, she took up the post of director of the hospital’s newly found nursing school, where she stayed until 1921.
During this time Maxwell used her vast nursing expertise for the benefit of the military, training 160 nurses during the Spanish-American War, who in turn cared for 1,000 soldiers at Fort Thomas in Chickamauga, Georgia. Maxwell was key in improving the previously horrendous conditions of the field hospital.
Realizing the importance of nurses in the care of soldiers during and after conflict, Maxwell was one of the first to push for nurses to be awarded military rank. The Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and in 1920, nurses were finally awarded military rank with Maxwell helping to design the U.S. Army nurses uniform.
Maxwell also trained nurses to serve in the military during World War I and often visited hospitals at the front line in Europe. She received the Medal of Honor for Public Health by the French government for her service.
After retiring in 1921, Maxwell spent her remaining time raising money for Columbia University’s Anna C. Maxwell Hall, which opened in 1928 and educated nurses until 1984.
Maxwell died in 1929 and was the first woman buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
Find out more about Nursing at SBBCollege
Further Nursing School reading: