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Get to Know 5 of History’s Greatest Nurses

Get to Know 5 of History’s Greatest Nurses

Experiencing the nursing profession as it is now, it can be easy to overlook the remarkable steps nurses in history have taken to overcome obstacles and bring the nursing profession to where it is today. It is important to look back and hear the stories of women who have defied all odds to push through barriers and help their communities—and nations—with levels of compassion and professionalism that hadn’t been seen before. We’ve focused on 5 nurses who have truly broken the bounds of what was expected of them and created lasting impacts on the nursing profession and the medical industry as a whole.

Florence Nightingale – Lady with the Lamp

Long hailed as one of the mother figures of nursing, Florence Nightingale not only helped wounded British soldiers during the Crimean war but actually was one of the key pieces in the development of nursing as a recognized profession. When she first began attending to soldiers, the death rate in hospitals was higher than on the battlefield because of the poor levels of sanitation. Florence helped reduce this death rate from 42% to 2% through her diligence with hygiene and her continual attention to her patients (she was known as the “lady with the lamp” because of her nighttime rounds). She realized the importance of her work and wrote a book titled “Nursing: What it is and What is it Not” in order to help future nurses learn from her experiences and keep progressing the field.

Clara Barton – Relief for Everyone

Clara Barton was an important figure both for America and for the world. During the Civil War, she helped Union soldiers by bringing them supplies, helping soldiers on the battlefield, and later helping reunite soldiers with their families. After the Civil War ended, Clara wanted to continue helping in any way she could. She traveled to Europe where she worked with the International Red Cross. Through working with this organization, she recognized a similar need in America and decided to found what we now know as the American Red Cross Society. She was the first president of this organization and dedicated her work to victims of all types, including both from battle and from natural disasters. She selflessly dedicated her life and skills to helping others and she is an icon for nurses of today.

Dorothy Dix – A Mental Health Advocate

Dorothy Dix changed the medical landscape through relentless action and pushing towards her causes. She was first renowned as a nurse during the Civil War, where she treated both Union and Confederate soldiers. This willingness to provide care regardless of political alignment garnered her respect from many inside and outside of the medical profession, and it was one of the first times medical care was recognized to be outside of political affiliations and focused solely on the needs of the patient. After this, she began championing for mental health reform within the United States. She wrote about the terrible sights she saw in jails and in buildings where people deemed insane were kept. She understood that mental illness was not the “fault” of the person or a sign of weakness and felt it was her duty to help provide people with mental illness somewhere safe and warm to be treated and heal. It was her adamancy that led to mental health institutions being built around America and mental illness being recognize as an ailment that needed medical care and compassion.

Mary Seacole – Known as ‘Mother Seacole’ to Many

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica around a time when many black people in the Caribbean were sold as slaves. Though Mary was born a ‘free person,’ she faced much prejudice against her and her desire to work in the nursing profession. From a young age, Mary learned about traditional medicine and healing from her mother. She grew up practicing on her dolls, pets, and herself in order to master the skills she was learning. When the Crimean war began, she went to the British War Office and requested being sent to Crimea to help wounded soldiers. She was refused on the grounds of racism, but she was not deterred. She traveled to Crimea herself and founded the British Hotel with help from a friend of her husband. This created a place where soldiers could come and rest. She even visited the battlefield herself to provide care to soldiers wounded on the field. She touched so many lives that soldiers called her ‘Mother Seacole’ in response to her unwavering kindness and care. Despite facing racism and discrimination, Mary Seacole defied all odds to follow her passions and help those in need. She is inspiring to us all and opened to door for nurses to follow in her footsteps and refuse to be ignored.

Martha Ballard – Understanding The Midwife’s Role

Martha Ballard was an American midwife and healer. She visited hundreds of women’s houses during her time and kept a close record of her experiences and the medicines she created and used. She delivered 816 babies over the course of 27 years and rode between different locations on horseback. Because she kept close records in her diary, we today are able to understand what it was like to be a nurse and midwife in the late 1700s and early 1800s. She wrote about the high mortality of child birth, and her experiences with loss and grieving mothers. She also wrote about how she purchased different medicines from local physicians and how she used the medications for different treatments. The documentation of her experiences has helped people today understand how the nursing profession has changed—and how it has stayed the same. The value of her experiences both in the medical field and for understanding what women’s lives were like that time is so high that there has even been a book published about it called “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her Diary, 1785-1812.”

While there are many incredible women in the history of nursing that deserve to be mentioned, these five truly went above and beyond the normal societal structure of their time and created their own path. Hopefully by reading their stories we can all be inspired to not always accept the status quo as it is, and realize our potential to create real change towards where we hope the nursing profession can someday be.



Josie Burridge

Josie Burridge


Josie is a college graduate from the University of Michigan in biomedical engineering. She is currently studying for a graduate degree in public health and is focusing her education on population health sciences and improving health care systems in our communities. She loves the way in which the medical field is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made, and she hopes to one day contribute her own research!


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