Nurses Week 2023, from May 6th to May 12th, is an annual celebration of the incredible work that the nursing profession performs every day. It’s also a time to acknowledge the many demands of their occupation, such as the pandemic. There was no playbook for dealing with a new virus, and nurses put their lives on the line to help their patients. So whether working on the frontlines in a hospital or devoting themselves to their home healthcare patients, we owe our gratitude to nurses both in the present and in the past. In this blog, FirstLantic Healthcare recognizes six nurses who helped lay the groundwork for today’s nursing profession.
- Florence Nightingale(1820–1910) Perhaps the most well-known nurse and generally regarded as the founder of modern nursing, Nightingale went into the profession despite the objections of her wealthy family. Rising to prominence during the Crimean War, she and fellow volunteer nurses witnessed the most wretched conditions among the wounded British soldiers. More were dying from typhus, cholera, and dysentery than from their wounds. Nightingale instituted a radical sanitation and hygiene program—most notably, handwashing with soap and water, which was not a common practice. Over the next forty years, she became a champion for nursing, a social advocate, and a statistician, and she established St. Thomas’s Hospital and Nightingale Training School for Nurses. This famous quote best summarizes her strength and attitude, “I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.”
- Mary Breckenridge(1881–1965) Breckenridge was a pioneer in establishing nurse-midwifery and a system for providing care in rural eastern Kentucky. After becoming a nurse, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a supervisor during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Breckenridge later volunteered in France after WWI to organize relief efforts for children and pregnant women. When she returned to the U.S., she made it her mission to serve impoverished families in Eastern Kentucky. She eventually founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which became the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1928. Breckenridge provided general healthcare, pre-and postnatal care, birthing services, and training for other midwives, demonstrating that trained providers could lower infant and maternal mortality rates. By her passing in 1965, the FNS—which she continued to lead—delivered more than 14,500 babies with only 11 maternal deaths.
- Clara Barton(1821–1912) Known as the “American Florence Nightingale,” Barton’s first nursing experience involved helping her brother David return to health after he fell from a barn roof. During the Civil War, she began nursing soldiers on the battlefield, distributing supplies, applying dressings, and garnering support from the public for nurses to work directly behind the frontlines. After the war, Barton traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where she learned of the humanitarian organization called the Red Cross. After being invited by one of the founders to start an American branch, she did so after convincing then-President Chester Arthur that the group would respond to battlefield crises and natural disasters like floods and earthquakes.
- Mary Eliza Mahoney(1845–1926) Although she was not the first African American woman to serve as a nurse in the U.S. (one notable predecessor was Harriet Tubman, who served as a Union Army nurse), she is recognized as the first to earn a nursing license. She later attended the New England Hospital for Women and Children and was one of only three women to complete the program out of a class of 40. Even though she was one of the group’s original members that later became the American Nurses Association, she split with the group for their failure to welcome nurses of color. As a result, she and two other Black nurses founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, a group that included all nurses regardless of race.
- Walt Whitman(1819–1892) Best known as a poet, essayist, journalist, and educator, Whitman also volunteered to serve as a nurse during the Civil War. While visiting his wounded brother on the front, the misery he witnessed left a lasting impression on him. Whitman went to D.C. and worked as a paymaster clerk while volunteering in his free time at army hospitals. As a volunteer nurse, he tended to the sick and wounded and wrote letters to their family and friends on their behalf. Whitman immortalized his experiences as a nurse in the poem “The Wound Dresser.”
- Margaret Sanger 1879 to 1966) was an American reproductive rights activist, sex educator, writer, and nurse. Sanger’s efforts contributed to several judicial cases that helped legalize contraception in the United States. Sanger was first inspired to act based on personal experience. Born to Irish-American parents, she witnessed her mother’s health decline from conceiving 18 times in 22 years, and she later died at age 49. Sanger felt that women could never have equality if they could not determine if and when to have children. She also wanted to improve women’s health through fewer pregnancies and prevent illegal abortions, which often led to women dying or becoming sterile as a result. After becoming a nurse and working with immigrant women, she also witnessed women who underwent frequent childbirth, miscarriages, and self-induced abortions for lack of information on how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In New York City, she organized the first birth control clinic to be staffed by all-female doctors and a clinic in Harlem with an all-African-American advisory council. From 1952 to 1959, Sanger was president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
In summary, the nurses of today have many inspiring predecessors who overcame adversity to make a difference for their patients. So, to all the nurses out there today who also work tirelessly through challenges, thank you for your incredible work and dedication. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, and FirstLantic is grateful for all you do. Happy Nurses Week!
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