What does it mean to be a nurse? Throughout history the role has always represented patient care, including a broad range of responsibilities and tasks according to the era, settings, circumstances and medical technologies of the times.
But no matter their role, nurses and caretakers who preceded them saw people suffering and were dedicated to alleviating that pain. They provided nursing inspiration for years to come, and much of their work is still referenced in today's hospitals, universities, and patient care settings. Here are three foundational nurses from history who changed the field in groundbreaking ways.
No list of inspirational nurses is complete without our lady with the lamp, Florence Nightingale. Nightingale is often deemed the founder of modern nursing, having essentially professionalized the field in Victorian England during the Crimean War.
Her 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, was the basis of professional nursing for years. The book lays the foundation for sanitary medical practice and provides an overview of modern nursing essentials.
Just as important to the field, but often overlooked, are her contributions to statistics. By carefully keeping notes on the casualties of the Crimean War, Nightingale gathered essential information about hygiene practices that changed the way patients were treated. The American Statistical Association notes that by recording and presenting the data in an easily understandable way, Nightingale was able to convert nursing into a legitimate profession with its own body of data and knowledge. In this way, Florence Nightingale was essentially the first nursing informaticist.
The Truth About Nursing reports that Dorothea Dix started her career as a teacher but found herself struggling with her mental and physical health. After a period of overseas recovery, she returned to the U.S. and volunteered as a Sunday school teacher to a group of incarcerated women. Appalled by the conditions in the jail, where patients were often caged and restrained, she resolved to improve the conditions there.
By aggressively lobbying congress and writing pamphlets, Dix convinced many state legislatures to expand their care of the mentally ill and imprisoned with trained personnel and improved treatment. This work laid the foundation for the main tenet of modern nursing: provide the best patient care possible.
Dix also contributed to the war effort. She was appointed as the Superintendent of Nurses for the Union army during the Civil War, where she marshaled thousands of nurses and dramatically improved nursing care for the wounded, often ignoring or disobeying orders from military leaders, says The Truth About Nursing.
Dix's combination of empathy for human suffering, organizational skills, powerful leadership, and foundation in education made a permanent mark on nursing.
Widowed at age 26 and devastated by the deaths of her two young children, Mary Breckinridge dedicated her life to improving the lives of mothers and their children, Britannica says.
Breckinridge earned her RN in 1910, and she later learned about the nurse-midwife model of care while serving in World War I. After learning all she could about midwifery and nursing at various institutions in England, she committed to improving the care of expecting patients living in rural areas of the U.S., where the maternal mortality rate was 800 out of every 100,000 births, according to The Truth About Nursing.
She created the Frontier Nursing Service, a group of nurse midwives who traveled on horseback to visit expecting parents and children in their homes. By providing education to rural families, she reduced the maternal death rate to well below the national average and advocated for children's health in rural areas. The Frontier Nursing Service is still in use today, and Breckinridge's legacy continues to inspire nurses and midwives in all areas.
Who is your nursing inspiration?
These incredible nurses are just a few individuals who made pioneered nursing and contributed to modern healthcare. There are countless other nurses who have lobbied congress, organized their communities, performed essential research, and sacrificed countless hours to pave the way for nurses to come.
Because of these inspiring figures, today's nursing industry is a robust field with thousands of skilled professional nurses who care for us when we're ill, celebrate with us when we deliver our newborns, hold our hands through our treatments, and listen to us when we voice our concerns. How can you carry on their legacy?