Great Nurses in History

nurses weekIn our book, every nurse is a hero (well, almost every nurse). Despite the job’s obvious value on an individual and societal level—you know, saving lives and what not—it can sometimes feel thankless when you’re doing it. Nurses don’t always get the tremendous amount of credit they’re due for keeping the healthcare system running, which can be discouraging. That’s why, this National Nurses Week, we are highlighting ten renowned nurses who made major and lasting impacts on not just their profession, but on the course of history. While every nurse makes a difference in some way, the legacies of these ladies (and one fella) serve as benchmarks to aspire to. Make sure you read on to the end, as there’s a special contest for those who are nursing history buffs!

Clara Barton

Barton first made her name during the Civil War, through its entirety leading medical supply collection efforts and tending to soldiers on the front lines (literally – legend has it that a bullet nicked her dress sleeve during one battle). She was even named the “Lady in Charge” of all Union hospitals in 1864, which is truly one of history’s greatest titles. Today, though, her legacy is felt most strongly through her defining post-war accomplishment: founding the American Red Cross, which has been a globally recognized leader in military and disaster relief since Barton became the organization’s first president in 1881.

Edith Cavell

The English-born Cavell made the ultimate sacrifice for her principles as a nurse (and human) while serving as Matron at a hospital in German-controlled Brussels during World War I. Despite the risks of doing so behind enemy lines, she cared for Allied and German soldiers alike, and in 1915, when a German court-martial found her guilty of helping British and French soldiers escape across borders rather than turn them over to be captured, she was executed. Her valiant defiance and subsequent martyrdom became a rallying point for British propaganda efforts during the remainder of the war.

Luther Christman

Christman is the only man out of our list of ten nurses, which is statistically right in line with the 10% of nurses who are male. And without his efforts, that number still might not even be that high. Christman faced repeated career obstacles because of his gender, including being denied admission to two nursing programs and, later, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. He ultimately received his nursing degree from the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men, and in 1967, became the first male dean of a U.S. nursing school at Vanderbilt University. He later helped found the National Male Nursing Association (later renamed the American Assembly for Men in Nursing), which provides advocacy and support for men in nursing to this day.

Dorothea Dix

Dix was originally a teacher by trade, but in addition to serving as Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union during the Civil War, she is best known for her activism on behalf of the mentally ill. Having first been exposed to her era’s horrific standards for the treatment of the mentally ill while teaching classes for inmates in prisons, she spent decades spearheading government lobbying efforts that led directly to the establishment of a more humane system of mental care facilities in both the U.S. and Europe.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

An unsung civil rights hero, Mahoney became the first officially registered African-American nurse in the United States upon her graduation from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s nursing program in 1879. This enabled her to undertake a long and dignified career as a private care nurse while remaining committed to racial equality. Frustrated with the discrimination she encountered as a member of the mostly white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (which became the American Nurses Association). She co-founded the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908 to help combat professional obstacles for black nurses.

Elizabeth Grace Neill

Neill wasn’t just a nurse – she was a real renaissance woman who, after receiving her nursing education in London, moved to Australia and later New Zealand, where she worked as a journalist and government inspector. The reason she’s on this list, however, is because, during her time in what would one day become Middle Earth, she applied her nursing and government experience to developing and successfully pushing for the institution of a national nursing registry, established in 1901. It was the first such registration system in the world, and set the standard for the way nurses are trained and certified today. She later helped establish a similar system for midwives.

Florence Nightingale

If there’s ever been a nursing rock star, Nightingale was it (well, other than Bay City Rollers drummer and trained nurse Derek Longmuir, of course). Even today, over a century and a half after her rise to fame as nurse during the Crimean War, her name is synonymous with the profession. She was, in fact, one of the great medical visionaries of the 19th Century. Not only did she revolutionize patient care on a global scale, establishing new hygiene standards that reduced patient mortality, but she had an inexorable impact on nursing education, founding schools and authoring many popular medical manuals. It’s little wonder that International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday.

Margaret Sanger

Sanger’s fearless efforts supporting birth control against great institutional opposition in the first half of the 20th Century are still having ramifications on the political discourse surrounding women’s rights to this day. Spurred by the devastating consequences of unwanted pregnancies and overall poor women’s health options she witnessed while practicing as a nurse in New York, she took part in decades of court battles—at times facing criminal charges herself—that ultimately weakened or eliminated laws against distributing birth control. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood, today the largest reproductive health services provider in the U.S.


Now that you’ve learned about our favorite nursing greats, it’s time for you to chime in! Comment below with your favorite nurse from history and why she/he is your favorite by Saturday, May 12th, and you’ll be entered to win a $100 Visa giftcard!


It’s no doubt that nursing is a necessary and rewarding profession. This list of historic nurses might inspire you to do more. One way to do more is to try travel nursing – check out our exciting openings here as a start!

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