The 15 Most Famous Nurses in History

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Like any profession, nursing wouldn’t be where it is today without trailblazers at its forefront. Whether it’s in public health, making the industry more visible, making incredible commitments during diseases or battle, breaking down barriers of prejudice, or simply holding themselves to an extraordinary level of care, the most famous nurses in the world might be a diverse bunch, but they are all united in the desire to care for others. 

With the WHO declaring 2020 the year of the nurse due to the amazing frontline work they have committed to during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a great idea to celebrate some of the most famous nurses in history. Spanning religions, eras and continents, this list should give you a great idea of how nurses shaped the course of the industry to this day. We have picked 15 for you to learn more about. Read on below for a lot of great inspiration. But first, you may asking yourself: 

How to Become a Nurse

If you wish to become a nurse in the United States, then its first important to figure out what kind of specialization you want to have and which qualifications you need relevant to your experience.  The usual step is to attend a nursing school, which can take around two-to-four years. If you are looking to convert your existing degree into a nursing qualification, then you can take an accelerated nursing program online courtesy of Marymount University. Offering a quick pipeline to success, you may find yourself practicing within just two years. 

Phoebe

Lived: 1st Century 

Nationality: Greek

A biblical figure and a key devotee of Saint Paul, she is actually the only woman named as a deaconess in the bible. Mentioned in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, she is praised for her devotion to the people of Rome and her desire to help the sick and wounded. Helping to spread the word of Christianity through her good deeds, she is seen as perhaps one of the first famous nurses ever. She would later prove to be an inspiration to women of faith who were traditionally the first nurses in the medieval and early modern period until the profession’s secularization in the 19th century. 

Rufaida Al-Aslamia

Lived: 7th Century

Nationality: Saudi Arabian 

The first ever Islamic nurse and surgeon, Rufaida Al-Alamia can be basically seen as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Phoebe. A trusted devotee of none other than the prophet Mohammed himself, and born into a family with a medical background, she was trusted upon to help set up some of the first nursing practices in the Islamic world. Eventually she trained other women to rise through the ranks, helping Muslim women to become more prominent in the nursing world. Now she is seen as an icon in Saudi Arabia and beyond, with an award given out to excellence in nursing held in her name. 

Florence Nightingale 

Lived: 1820-1910 

Nationality: English 

You can’t name the most famous nurses of all time without mentioning Florence Nightingale. Known as the “lady of the lamp”, she rose to fame due to her incredible work for the UK during the Crimean war with Russia.  When she was there in the 1850s, she noticed the incredibly poor conditions in the war hospitals, which had led to more soldiers dying of diseases than from the war itself. As a result, she pioneered a lot of different innovations that have led to her being called the mother of modern nursing. She also set up the first training facility for nurses in 1860 at St Thomas Hospital. Her legacy is well-known in the UK, where a specially built coronavirus hospital was named after her. 

Virginia Henderson 

Lived: 1897-1996

Nationality: American

With her work often compared to being the twentieth-century equivalent of Florence Nightingale, Virginia Henderson is one of the United States of America’s most famous nurses. She is best known for her definition of nursing, which still stands true today: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge.” She is also known for her need theory, a concept of self-determination that focuses on making sure that the patient continues to have a healthy and successful life after they leave the hospital. 

Dorothea Dix 

Lived: 1802-1887

Nationality: American

Dorothea Dix was famed for her advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill, lobbying Congress for substantial changes to the way they are classified and treated. Her pioneering work led to the establishment of the country’s first mental hospitals. She was also very well known for her time spent as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union forces during the American Civil War. She drafted the criteria for enlisting them as well as training them for duty. On both the Union and Confederate side, she was respected for giving equal and fair treatment to either side, reminding us that in war, it is the nurse’s essential duty to treat the sick no matter who they fight for. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Lived: 1845-1926

Nationality: American

Mary Eliza Mahoney broke the color barrier in the USA by being the first African-American woman to ever study and work as a nurse in the country. Inspired by the enrolment of nurses in the Civil War, and wishing to do what no other black nurse did due to racial prejudice rife across the nation, she applied to the New England Hospital for Women and Children, and was enrolled in an 18 month program. It was a rather grueling process, making her one of only three women to be accepted out of 40 candidates. Later, in 1908 she started the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses along with Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms, which helped to promote the suffrage of other black women to become nurses. As a result, she is considered to be a pioneering figure in the civil rights movement. 

Walt Whitman

Lived: 1819-1892

Nationality: American 

Perhaps the most surprising entry on this list, the famed author of Leaves of Grass and the grandfather of Modern American poetry was also an accomplished volunteer nurse. During the Cvil War, he was profoundly affected by the ways in which men were wounded and killed in the war, leading him to enrol in an army hospital. These experiences would then go on to lead to an essay named The Great Army of the Sick, published in 1863, and a longer piece, a book named Memoranda During the War

Sophie Mannerheim

Lived: 1863-1928

Nationality: Finnish

Born in Finland, Sophie Mannerheim trained at the Nightingale School of Nursing run out of St Thomas’ Hospital in London at the turn of the twentieth century. She took those vital experience with her back home when she returned to Helsinki, quickly being appointed the head nurse of the Helsinki Surgical Hospital, as well as the President of the Finnish Nurses’ Association. As a result of her advocacy for nurses across the world, she was made president of the International Council of Nurses, an organisation that still runs out of Geneva, Switzerland. 

Florence Guinness Blake 

Lived: 1907-1983

Nationality: American 

Florence Blake was best known for her work in pediatric nursing and family-centered care. She taught pediatric nursing in China for a few years before leading the graduate program in the same subject at the University of Chicago in the 40s. She was also an accomplished author, renowned for her seminal 1954 book, The Child, His Parent and the Nurse, which stressed how important it is for parents to be involved in raising a child. It is now seen as an essential textbook and one of the first to show the importance of holistic childcare and its relationship to nursing. 

Edith Cavell 

Lived: 1865-1915

Nationality: English

Cavell was a famed nurse during WWI. Originally stationed in Belgium, where she trained nurses for three hospitals, twenty-four schools and thirteen kindergartens, she rose to fame when she sheltered British soldiers during the Belgium occupation and smuggled them out to the Netherlands. The Germans caught her and she was promptly sent to a court-martial and executed. Nonetheless, she held no grudge against the German forces, magnanimously saying the night before her death that: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are written in her memorial by Trafalgar Square. She is also included in the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints. 

Clara Barton

Lived: 1821-1912

Nationality: American 

As nursing education was then not as formal as it is today, Clara Barton did not actually attend an institute for nursing, but she managed to teach herself. First working as a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, she later became known for her humanitarian and civil rights work. Later she met Susan B. Anthony and started being an activist for civil rights. When she traveled to Switzerland in 1869, she met the leaders of the Red Cross movement. They invited her to be the organisation’s representative of the American branch, a task she readily accepted, making it the fully flourished organization we see in the United States of America today. 

Lillian Wald

Lived: 1867-1940

Nationality: American

Born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in Ohio, Lilian Wald is largely considered to be the founder of American community nursing. After attending the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, then later working at the New York Juvenile Asylum under difficult conditions, her experience led her to coin the term “public health nurse” to describe the work of caretakers working within a public community. She would later advocate to have nurses be a part of public schools as well as founding the Henry Street Settlement — a not-for-profit social service agency — in New York in the year 1893. 

Susie King

Lived: 1848-1912

Nationality: American 

Susie King’s life sounds like something out of a sweeping Hollywood movie. Born into a slave plantation in Georgia, she was educated illegally by a free African-American woman. Then when the Union forces took over her hometown, she managed to ingratiate herself with them before being allowed to set up her own school. Later she would be the first black nurse to serve in the civil war, working for the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment, where her husband was also posted. Incredibly enough, despite the immense sacrifices she made, she was never actually paid for this work. 

Edith DeVoe

Lived: 1921-2000

Nationality: American

Following on from Susie King’s wartime nursing legacy, Edith DeVoe, born in Washington D.C, would go on to break further barriers for black women nurses in the military. After working for the Visiting Nurse Association, she was commissioned into the United States Navy Reserve in 1945. After the war, she was sent to the Navy Communication Annex Dispensary, where she became the first black nurse to be in the regular navy. She would later serve the injured in the Korean War, earning the rank of lieutenant in the process. 

Anna Caroline Maxwell

Lived: 1851-1921

Nationality: American

Known lovingly as “the American Florence Nightingale”, Anna Caroline Maxwell started her career at New England Hospital. Inspired by the career of Linda Richards, she would later move to Boston City Hospital Training School for Nurses. It would be her work during the Spanish-American war that made her America’s Florence Nightingale — working in a field hospital in Georgia where she experienced dreadful conditions. She managed to provide care during the outbreak of diseases including typhoid fever, malaria and measles, leading to a very positive impression with the military. This later led to her helping to establish the United States Army Nurse Corps in 1901. 

The history of nursing is replete with the meritorious acts of supremely brave people, predominantly women, who we can all thank for the excellent level of care we receive today when we find ourselves in need of medical attention.