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Nurses Week: A Brief History

Nurses Week: A Brief History

Between all the pizza and cake, you may have wondered what started this week-long celebration. The timing makes sense, May 12th is good ole’ Florence Nightingale’s birthday. Of course, she was born in 1820, but it wasn’t until 1974 that Nixon signed a proclamation recognizing nurses for a day.
As the years went by, the date shifted and evolved until Reagen made May 6th a national recognition day for nurses.
In 1993, the American Nurses Association designated May 6-12 as nurses week, which incidentally holds student nurse day and school nurse day as well. You can see the whole timeline here.
The original celebration was on the 100 year anniversary of Nightingale’s Crimean mission. She took 38 volunteer nurses to care for British soldiers fighting in the war. Once they got there, they saw your infection prevention nurse’s worst nightmare.
There was no basic hygiene and infection caused the death of many more soldiers than the initial injuries should have. Nightingale cleaned up the mess and eventually even used statistics to improve the hygiene of military and civilian hospitals, way before statistics were cool.
While you may not think of handwashing and nurses week as related, Nightingale wasn’t just a nurse, she was an IP guru. She wasn’t the first or last nurse to make a difference either.
Even before Florence, Dorthea Dix was checking the government on their treatment of the mentally ill. In 1881, Clara Barton established the American Red Cross. In 1912 Lillian Wald built on Florence’s theories and became the first public health nurse. What would she think about the pandemic today?
There are thousands of nurses who have made significant differences in the policies we use and the patient lives they touched, all because nurses work tirelessly to improve patient care.

So what’s new?

The ANA took nursing week one step further this year, which after COVID, seemed like a reasonable idea. The first week of May is supposed to focus on self-care, so eat the pizza and enjoy the fun games your hospital has planned. Week 2 is recognition, where nursing leaders, heroes, and innovators are honored. Week 3 is professional development and week 4 holds opportunities to engage the community.
There’s no word on if nurses week will turn into a month every year, but you deserve all the best in 2021. How will you be celebrating? Let us know in the comment section!
Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN

Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN


Amanda is an ER nurse with 10 years of healthcare experience. She currently works as a nurse educator and as an adjunct professor for several schools. She also works as a freelance healthcare writer in her spare time. Amanda thinks the greatest thing about nursing is the endless possibilities and opportunities to learn. What have you learned today?


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