Nurses are an integral part of the medical profession. They’re found at the core of every medical facility, from hospital emergency rooms to family doctors’ offices. Nurses have also played an important role in the history of medicine. They’ve encouraged better sanitation practices by health-care providers, improved access to medical care, and spearheaded the development of preventive medical treatments. Today, nursing has evolved into a group of professions. Not only do modern nurses still provide medical care and support to patients, but they also perform medical research, provide counseling services, and work as educators. This field and its history are rich and fascinating, and many of its achievements have been due to women who made their mark on the history of health care.
Dorothea Dix (1802-87): Mental Health Advocate
- Dix discovered her passion for teaching when she opened her first school at 15 years old, but it wasn’t until she was 39 that she discovered her second passion. While teaching classes in a women’s prison, Dix found that mentally ill and developmentally disabled women were imprisoned there under inhumane conditions. Horrified by what she had seen, Dix decided she had to do something to end the practice of confining these groups of people in prisons rather than caring for them.
- This new calling inspired Dix to travel across the United States and Europe visiting prisons to advocate for better treatment of those within. She eventually brought her arguments to Congress and convinced legislators to support the opening of the Government Hospital for the Insane. This facility still exists and is now known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
- When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dix traveled to Washington, D.C., where she became a nurse attached to the War Department. She was soon made superintendent of Army nurses. She stayed in that position until the end of the war.
Clara Barton (1821-1912): Founder of the American Red Cross
- During the Civil War, Barton saw the desperate need for medical supplies and services on the front lines of battlefields. She took it upon herself to travel to battlefield after battlefield offering care to both armies. This earned her the moniker “The Angel of the Battlefield.”
- Once the war was over, Barton traveled to Europe, where she again provided nursing services to wounded soldiers, this time in a war between France and Prussia. There, she was inspired by the newly organized Red Cross. Upon her return to America, Barton founded the American Red Cross.
- Once the American Red Cross was established, Barton turned to expanding the organization’s duties from battlefield aid to disaster relief. Eventually, the organization would begin providing aid internationally. Today, the American Red Cross provides health and disaster relief services around the world.
Linda Richards (1841-1930): First Formally Trained Female Nurse
- Richards became the first American nurse to complete a formal nursing program in the United States when she graduated from the nurse training program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1873.
- Her most lasting impact on the history of medicine came when she saw how the lack of medical records in most hospitals caused patients to suffer. There were no reliable records of patients’ previous conditions, chronic illnesses, or treatments that had already been tried. Having these medical records on hand would help doctors determine the best way to help their patients. Richards eventually developed an organized system of note-taking and record-keeping to ensure that this was no longer a problem.
- Richards never stopped working to improve her profession and became a leading educator in her field. She started nursing schools in the United States and abroad. Richards even traveled to Kyoto to help establish Japan’s first nurse training program in 1885.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926): First African-American Registered Nurse
- Mahoney worked as a private-duty nurse at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for years before she was finally admitted to the hospital’s nursing program in 1878.
- She was the first African-American woman to complete formal training and become a registered nurse in the United States.
- When the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, now known as the American Nurses Association, expressed prejudice against people of color within their organization, Mahoney left the association. She then became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses to advocate for the dignity and equality of minorities in the nursing profession.
- In 1936, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses began awarding the Mary Mahoney Award to a person or group making strides to integrate the nursing profession. This award continues to be granted to those who carry on Mahoney’s legacy of promoting equality for minorities in the nursing professions.
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912): First African-American Union Army Nurse in the American Civil War
- Susie King Taylor was only a teenager when she escaped slavery by fleeing to a Union Army camp during the Civil War. Though only 14, Taylor became a teacher. She also became a nurse, laundress, and cook for the army.
- Taylor later published the only known memoir by an African-American woman who served in the Civil War. Though she wasn’t paid and wasn’t formally educated in medicine, her efforts still helped pave the way for other African-American women to become nurses.
Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940): Public Health Advocate
- Shortly after beginning classes at the Women’s Medical College in New York, during a trip to coordinate classes for immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side, Wald was so shocked by the poor state of health of those living in tenement houses there that she felt she needed to do something. She left school and founded the Nurses’ Settlement at Henry Street to help those most in need of medical care.
- At the Nurses’ Settlement, Wald and a small number of other nurses pioneered the field of public health nursing. The group charged for medical care on a sliding scale. They hoped that by adjusting how much they charged based on the means of their clients, they could make health care affordable to everyone.
- Wald’s bold decision to leave the medical establishment and prioritize the general health of the community was a success. Her efforts at improving the health of her community, as well as educating future medical practitioners on the need for this service, contributed to the founding of the National Federation of Settlements. Much like Wald’s Nurses’ Settlement, this organization aimed to provide desperately needed medical aid and public services to the communities that needed them the most. The field of public health nursing would eventually become its own profession.
- Wald became the first chairperson of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, which worked to develop this new field.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966): Founder of Planned Parenthood
- Sanger’s journey to becoming an iconic American reproductive rights activist began in tragedy. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, died at the age of 50 after a staggering 18 pregnancies during her lifetime. Sanger felt that so many close-together pregnancies had done irreparable damage to her mother’s body and eventually led to her death.
- After completing nursing school, Sanger became a visiting maternity nurse in the poor Lower East Side of New York City. Many of the women Sanger worked with also had many children and lacked information on family planning. In desperation, many of these women turned to dangerous and illegal methods, which were sometimes fatal, to prevent unwanted children.
- Sanger began fighting back against laws forbidding contraception and distribution of information on family planning or sex education. She faced pushback from the public and the government, but this didn’t stop her. Together with her sister, who was also a nurse, Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic.
- The clinic was soon shut down by the government, and Sanger and her sister were both arrested. Once released, Sanger returned to her mission and began touring the country advocating for women’s right to control their reproductive health. Sanger’s efforts resulted in the founding of Planned Parenthood, an organization that offers health services in clinics throughout the United States today.
Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989): Advocate for Racial Equality in Nursing
- Staupers joined the Nation Association of Colored Graduate Nurses while still in nursing school. She would go on to become the first executive director of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and worked tirelessly for more than a decade for the complete integration of African-American nurses into the medical field as well as the American Nurses Association.
- She was based in the Harlem section of New York City, and her early career was focused on caring for tuberculosis patients there. Staupers was part of a group of African-American medical practitioners who established the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium to house and treat these patients.
- When World War II broke out, Staupers concentrated on convincing the U.S. military to accept African-American nurses into their medical staff. Eventually, the need for nurses became so great that the army agreed to Staupers’s demands and began a policy of race-blind recruiting for nurses.
- This set a precedent that contributed to the desegregation of the nursing profession in the civilian realm. After many years of effort by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, the American Nurses Association finally welcomed African-American nurses into their ranks as full members. With their goal achieved, the National Association of Colored Graduates Nurses dissolved in 1951, and their membership merged with the American Nurses Association.