Request Info

6 Important Nurses in History


Here are six amazing nurses from history you can use as inspiration for your own efforts in making a difference.

We talk a lot about Florence Nightingale, founder of modern holistic nursing, because Ameritech was founded on holistic nursing principals. But many other nurses made history, too, with their discoveries, compassion, and practice. Learn about six amazing nurses from history and use their contributions to the field as inspiration for your own efforts of making a difference in the world.

The unknown nurse

While we know a great deal about some historical figures, we must first acknowledge those many brave nurses whose sacrifices and care are lost to history and unknown to us.

Because of the nature of their work, nurses often find themselves on the front lines of war and as first responders when disaster strikes. These are men and women who held the hands of dying soldiers at Liège during the First World War, throughout the Civil War, and during countless other moments in history.

Most of these compassionate professionals don’t make the headlines. We might never know their names, but we can acknowledge their bravery and try to live up to their examples.

Related resource: Important Nursing Leaders You May Have Never Heard Of

Florence Nightingale

Any discussion of nursing history must include Florence Nightingale (1820–1910). The British nursing pioneer advocated for patient and human rights and established a model of advocacy, as well as the whole-being concept of holistic nursing. She brought evidence-based care to even the poorest members of society. She raised standards of care for all patients, first making a mark in history during the Crimean War in 1853.

In 1907 she became the first woman to be awarded the British Order of Merit. Florence Nightingale continues to inspire the mission of holistic nursing at Ameritech and around the world.

Walt Whitman

You might have studied his “Leaves of Grass,” but did you know this Civil War era poet was also a nurse? Walt Whitman (1819–1892) joined the ranks of nurses when his brother George was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.

While his brother’s injury was minor, Walt Whitman was deeply affected by the gruesome conditions of the first hospital he encountered. He continued to care for wounded soldiers throughout the duration of the Civil War and recorded camp life in his journal — which later became the inspiration for his poetry and prose, including “The Great Army of the Sick.”

Related resource: What is Holistic Nursing?

Clara Barton

Clara Barton (1821–1912) was a 40-year-old records clerk when Union troops marched through her city of Washington, D.C. at the start of the Civil War. She quickly recognized that the troops were suffering due to lack of supplies, coordination, and medical skill. She responded by bringing food and medical supplies to the field. Barton even risked her life delivering supplies at midnight by mule in the middle of a battlefield.

After the war, Barton went on to lead a team of military men in identifying the graves of 13,000 Union soldiers. She was instrumental in encouraging the United States to ratify the Geneva Convention, and is perhaps best known for founding the American Red Cross.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

African-American nurses were uncommon during the post-Civil War era. Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926) began as an untrained practical nurse and janitor at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was accepted into the hospital’s graduate nursing program; out of 40 students who began the program in 1878, Mahoney was one of only three to complete it.

As a black woman in a public profession, Mahoney faced extreme discrimination throughout her distinguished career. Nevertheless, she worked as a nurse for the next 40 years of her life, opening doors for other African-American women in the field.

Mahoney gave the founding address to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (now the National Black Nurses Association) in 1908 and posthumously received a host of awards.

Related resource: The Future of Nursing Report: The Progress We’ve Made, and the Work We Still Need to Do

Dorothea Dix

Civil War activist Dorothea Dix (1802–1887) is best known as an advocate for humane treatment of the mentally ill. During her life, she founded or expanded over 30 hospitals for the mentally ill and was a champion of the notion that mental illness was treatable — a novel idea at the time.

Dix became a school teacher and achieved relative fame by publishing a book for teachers, suggesting that women should be educated at the same level as men. Her teaching career ended when a chronic illness brought her to the brink of death; as she convalesced in England in 1836, she met several British prison reformers and mental health professionals.

Dix’s exposure to reform ideas in England, combined with her experience teaching Sunday school for jailed female convicts, sparked her research of the treatment of the mentally ill. Although women were barred from participating in government, in 1843 Dix submitted materials to the state of Massachusetts legislature and remained a lifelong advocate of compassionate care.

Related resource: The Importance of Diversity in Healthcare Programs

Margaret Sanger

It’s difficult to separate the work of Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) from controversy involving Planned Parenthood, but her influence on the world of nursing is undeniable.

Sanger was born under the Comstock Act, which criminalized contraceptives. After watching her mother die at the age of 50 following 11 childbirths and seven miscarriages, Sanger attended nursing school in New York City’s Lower East Side. There she found herself frequently caring for the mothers of large, poor immigrant families who had taken abortion efforts into their own hands.

In 1914, the nurse coined the term “birth control” and two years later was arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in the country. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood. Her research and advocacy spanned methods that included condoms, diaphragms, and, in 1960, the birth control pill.

The Comstock Act was overturned shortly before Sanger’s death in 1966.
Ameritech students feel the impact of holistic nursing and its history of patient advocacy and compassion every day. To learn more about our nursing, RN-BSN, or other programs, visit our program pages or follow us on Facebook.