20 Iconic Nurses Every Nursing Student Should Study


November 18th, 2010

During your time in nursing school, you’re bound to hear the names of countless famous and influential nurses thrown around. But if you’re looking for inspiration in your own career or just want to further your education, there are some amazing women and men in the profession you should study. Here are twenty nurses who worked hard, often against the grain of the larger medical community, to change the face of health care in the United States and around the world.

  1. Florence Nightingale: Even if you weren’t in nursing school, you more than likely would have heard of this woman, perhaps the most famous nurse in history. Believing that God has called her to be a nurse, Nightingale went against expectations for aristocratic women at the time, pursuing a career rather than marrying and settling down. She is best known in stories for her nursing in the Crimean War, but should also be credited with laying the foundation for modern nursing with the establishment of the St. Thomas Hospital in London, the first secular school of its kind to train and educate nursing students.
  2. Dorthea Dix: Born in 1802, Dix was one of the loudest voices in America when it came to lobbying Congress to improve the treatment and care for the mentally ill in the United States. Inspired by reforms she saw going on in England, Dix moved to establish new facilities and legislation that helped improve the social welfare of the insane both here and abroad. When the Civil War broke out, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Union Army Nurses, providing care to the wounded on both sides of the conflict.
  3. Helen Fairchild: If you want to learn more about the realities of combat nursing during World War I, read through Helen Fairchild’s collection of wartime letters to her family. You’ll get vivid stories about the horrors and challenges that nurses faced when trying to care for patients who were the victims of sometimes horrific war injuries. After surviving heavy shelling and mustard gas on the battlefield in France, Fairchild would die from complications during an ulcer surgery after only five years as a nurse.
  4. Mary Seacole: Mary Seacole’s education as a nurse began when she was very young, learning herbal remedies and folk medicine from her Jamaican mother. Feeling that her knowledge of these treatments and abilities as a nurse could be useful, she traveled to London to assist with caring for the wounded during the Crimean War. Initially rejected due to her gender and most likely her mixed racial heritage, Seacole would go on to show much bravery, compassion and ability as a nurse, treating whoever needed help regardless of what side they were on.
  5. Margaret Sanger: Sanger is today best remembered as the founder of what would become Planned Parenthood, working hard throughout her life to provide women of all ages with adequate birth control. Sanger believed that women should be able to control when and how they became pregnant and could see the financial and social hardships unexpected pregnancies placed on women. While Sanger’s personal politics, outspoken racism and belief in eugenics make her a highly controversial historical figure, her work to promote access to birth control and health facilities for women have made a lasting impact on health care today.
  6. Edith Cavell: Edith Cavell is a nurse who went above and beyond the call of duty. Trained as a nurse at the London Hospital, Cavell went to Belgium to work in a nursing clinic and school. When World War I broke out, Cavell not only helped treat the wounded but began working as a spy, helping to funnel British soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium into Holland, saving over 200 lives. Unfortunately, she was found out and was executed for treason, an action many felt was unfair as she had saved many German lives as well as British.
  7. Mary Breckinridge: Founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, Breckinridge is best known for the work she did in founding family care centers in the Appalachian Mountains. After the traumatic loss of two children and a painful, embarrassing divorce, Breckinridge traveled to Europe to help families in the aftermath of WWI. While there, she became interested in becoming a midwife, was trained in England and returned to the United States to found her own midwifery clinic and school. Her facilities helped many women and families in rural areas get the medical care they needed.
  8. Clara Barton: Another of the most famous nurses in medical history, this enterprising woman began her nursing career at an early age, helping nurse her brother back to health when she was only a child. Inspired by this experience, Barton went on to tend to the wounded on some of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War. Of course, what Barton is best known for is her founding of the American Red Cross, which went on to become an international organization, helping people in conflicts and disasters around the world.
  9. Mary Eliza Mahoney: Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American nurse to work professionally in the field, graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879. Mahoney would go on to have a diverse career, working as everything from the director of an asylum for black children to a private care nurse. One of the few non-white members of the American Nurses Association, Mahoney would go on to found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. Mahoney’s pioneering didn’t end there, however, and she was one of the first women to register to vote in 1920.
  10. Virginia Henderson: After graduating from the Army School of Nursing and with and MA in nursing from Columbia University, Henderson went on to develop some of the most foundational theories in nursing– theories which are still very much in practice today. Henderson believed that nurses should work to help all individuals find better health, whether they were sick or well, emphasizing the power nurses have to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Today she is called the “first lady of nursing” and has won numerous awards and honors for her work.
  11. Christiane Reimann: This Danish nurse is highly regarded for her contributions to nursing around the world. In 1925, she became the Executive Secretary of the International Council of Nurses, and after her death in 1979, the council named an award after her. The award is now regarded as the most prestigious nursing award in the world, recognizing other nurses like Reimann who’ve made an impact on the nursing profession.
  12. Jeanne Prentice: If you’re looking to learn more about a nurse who’s still working in the field, you’ll be well-served by learning about this sterling example. Working as a nurse midwife, Prentice labors to bring information about natural and home births to women who might not otherwise consider these as options. She’s an active voice not only for the nursing community, but also for groups who want to give women more power and choices over their bodies and their births.
  13. John Devereaux Thompson: It’s only fair to include a male on this list of iconic nurses, as many men work hard and put in long hours to improve the field of nursing and health care, even if the career is traditionally a female one. Thompson has been honored by many nursing organizations, including the ANA for his work in improving patient care and safety. Thompson established his own design studio to implement his ideas for better hospital architecture, pushing them to better represent the needs of patients and health care professionals.
  14. Hildegard Peplau: Peplau is known as the “mother of psychiatric nursing” and has been regarded by many as one of the most important nurses of this century. She worked as a psychiatric nurse during WWII in England, where she met many leading figures in psychiatry with whom she worked to change the mental health system and pass new policies. She is currently the only nurse to have been both the Executive Director and President of the ANA. Additionally, she has been honored with the Christiane Reimann award, numerous honorary doctoral degrees, Sigma Theta Tau, and was named as one of the “50 Great Americans” by Marquis.
  15. Major General Patricia Horoho: Horoho is currently the U.S. Army Deputy Surgeon General and 23rd Chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She has been recognized as a “nurse hero” by the Red Cross for her work after the September 11th attacks. She was won numerous awards for her work as a military nurse and has helped develop procedures used in setting up training field hospitals.
  16. Florence Guinness Blake: This great nurse helped change the face of pediatric nurse forever. Encouraged early on for her passion in nursing, Blake went on to earn her BA from Columbia University, allowing her to teach pediatric nursing to nursing students around the world. After getting her MA, Blake established the graduate program in pediatric nursing at the University of Chicago and literally wrote the book on the subject — one that is still used in the field today. She has received numerous awards for her work and dedication to the field, and is an inspirational figure for anyone hoping to go into teaching, research or nursing in pediatrics.
  17. Sophie Mannerheim: A Baroness, one wouldn’t think this aristocratic Finn would feel compelled to take on a career in nursing, yet that’s just what she did. Following her divorce in 1902, she decided to attend the Nightingale School at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. It was there that she found her calling, and was eventually appointed President of the Finnish Nurses’ Association and subsequently the ICN. She is known for her work in helping to improve the health and welfare of children in her native Finland.
  18. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown: Hazel W. Johnson-Brown has the distinction of being the first African-American women to become a general. Of course, she’s more than just a general. Johnson-Brown spent years working as an Army nurse, working her way up to the Chief of Army Nurse Corps and the dean of Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. Johnson-Brown had to overcome a number of obstacles to get where she is today, most notably being rejected from nursing school because of her race, making her a inspiring example for nurses today.
  19. Martha Ballard: The great-aunt of famous nurse Clara Barton, this amazing woman shows that bravery, compassion and drive may very well be in the genes. Ballard is known for traveling around her native Maine in canoe or by horse, helping women as a midwife and greatly improving the medical care they and their newborn children received.
  20. Elizabeth Grace Neill: This Scottish nurse helped lobby for laws that changed the face of health care in New Zealand. These new laws forced first nurses and then midwives to get specialized training and registration, making them better qualified to attend to the women who received their care. Of course, this was only the first of many reforms she would work to enforce during her career as a nurse, making changes in her home country as well as around the world.

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