Top 5 Non-Television Nurses of All-Time


December 28th, 2011

Whether working the front-lines of a military conflict or holding the hand of a family member who anxiously watches their loved one lying in a hospital bed, nurses possess an innate passion for helping others. Women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had the most profound impact on setting the standards for what compassionate care looks like. At the time, nursing was one of only a handful of vocations that allowed women to blaze their own professional trails.

  1. Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) – Florence Nightingale rightfully assumes a place in nearly every classroom history book. A visionary health reformer and tireless advocate, the Florence Nightingale Museum describes her as “the most influential woman in Victorian Britain and its Empire, second only to Queen Victoria herself.”

    Relinquishing her aristocratic privileges, Nightingale devote her life to improving the British nursing system, first during the Crimean War and later as an investigator of the health and sanitation conditions of Army personnel stationed in India. Penning more than 200 books, reports and pamphlets on hospital organization, planning and practices, she is also the founder of the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

  2. Clara Barton (1821 – 1882) – A humanitarian at heart, Clara Barton is the founder of the American Red Cross. Heavily influenced by her great-aunt, midwife Martha Ballard, Barton began her nursing career at the age of 40 by bravely delivering supplies on the front-lines to Civil War soldiers.

    In order to become an official member of the International Red Cross, the U.S. president had to sign the Geneva Treaty, which called for a multinational commitment to caring for soldiers during war. After petitioning three presidential administrations, Barton finally received approval to start her organization that would stand next to Americans in times of distress. She led the foundation until she retired at the age of 83.

  3. Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 – 1926) – Co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American Registered Nurse (RN). One of only three students to complete a rigorous 16-month certification program, Mahoney graduated in 1879, at the age of 34, from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses. A devoted promoter of women’s rights and racial equality, at the age of 76, Mahoney was one of the first Boston women to stand in line to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920.

    The NACGN was later renamed the American Nurses Association, which currently represents more than 3.1 million registered nurses and sets the ethical standards in nursing practices. Every two years, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed upon nurses who make significant contributions in building interracial relationships.

  4. Mary Breckinridge (1881 – 1965) – Born into a wealthy Tennessee family with strong political connections, midwife Mary Breckinridge diligently campaigned for improved medical care in rural areas in the U.S. After losing her first husband, six-week-old daughter and four-year-old son, Breckinridge devoted her life to ensuring mothers and children had access to adequate health services.

    In 1925, at the age of 45, she opened Frontier Nursing Service, Kentucky’s first midwife program that used nurses as licensed obstetricians. Breckinridge often traveled by foot or horseback just to tend to patients in the remote regions of the Appalachian mountains. By 1939, she expanded the community health center to include a school for nurse midwifery. Today, the Frontier Nursing University (FNU) offers degrees for Doctor of Nursing Practice and Master of Science in Nursing, with specializations in Nurse-Midwife, Women’s Healthcare Nurse Practitioner and Family Nurse Practitioner.

  5. Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) – A vocal advocate for women’s right to have access to birth control, Margaret Sanger is the founder of Planned Parenthood. A pioneer in nursing, Sanger opened her first clinic in 1916 to serve the women of Brooklyn, NY, during a time when contraception was illegal.

    A firsthand witness to the devastating effects of poverty and unplanned pregnancies, Sanger propagated her beliefs through The Birth Control Review, the nation’s first scientific journal devoted to contraception issues. She also founded the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan and the American Birth Control League, which eventually merged into the modern day Planned Parenthood. A controversial figure, Sanger was only concerned with empowering women to take control of their health, family planning and well-being.

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