Linda Richards: U.S. Nursing Pioneer

By | 2022-02-14T17:58:17-05:00 June 23rd, 2011|0 Comments

By way of introduction to the matron at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Scotland, Florence Nightingale described Linda Richards as a Boston lady with a high-spirited manner who set out for a year’s experience abroad.

“I have seen her, and have seldom seen anyone who struck me as so admirable,” Nightingale wrote in the introduction of Richards’ 1911 memoir. “I think we have as much to learn from her as she from us.”

By 1877, Richards already had completed nurses training at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, and spent a year as night superintendent at the Bellevue Hospital Training School in New York and 2.5 years as superintendent of the Massachusetts General Hospital training school. But she sought to learn more about the English hospitals and methods of nursing education. So an MGH committee member arranged a visit to England through a friend of Nightingale, and MGH sponsored Richards’ trip.

In her memoir, “Reminiscences of Linda Richards, America’s First Trained Nurse,” Richards calls Nightingale an inspiration and describes her as small in stature with a sweet face and deep blue eyes. Nightingale suggested Richards visit King’s College Hospital and the Royal Infirmary.

“Many and varied blessings have come to me through the years of my hospital life, but never one greater than the privilege of having seen and known Miss Nightingale,” Richards wrote. “I have never ceased to appreciate the benefits derived from that first visit. I was sorry to leave, and very grateful for all of the kindness received.”

After visiting the two hospitals, Richards accepted Nightingale’s invitation for a visit at her Lea Hurst country home, where the nurses discussed the differences between American and English training methods. Richards recalled Nightingale offering advice, which she described as “absolutely invaluable.”

Richards then spent a month visiting hospitals in Paris and received a note from Nightingale before heading back to America. In it, the Englishwoman said, “May you outstrip us, that we in turn may outstrip you.” Richards said those words inspired her and gave her courage to make use of the knowledge she gained in Europe.
Debbie Ciesielka, DEd, ANP-BC, program director for the Clarion (Pa.) University Master of Science in Nursing program, wrote her thesis about Richards and thought much of Nightingale’s influence on Richards originated from the networking and friendships with people she met through Nightingale.

Inspired by stories she heard about nursing during the Civil War, Richards not only fulfilled her youthful desire to care for the sick and wounded, but also used her knowledge and skills to teach others. Upon returning home, she accepted an offer to organize a training school at Boston City Hospital. Once the school was up and running, she accepted a position to establish a training school in Japan for the American Board of Missions. The first nurses graduated in 1888.

Richards left Japan in 1890, traveled and then led the Philadelphia Visiting Nurses Society, followed by positions of leadership in several local psychiatric and general hospitals in Philadelphia and New England. She also established institutions for the mentally ill because, according to her memoir, it “stands to reason that the mentally sick should be at least as well cared for as the physically sick.”

Ellen D. Baer, RN, PhD, FAAN, visiting professor of nursing at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and professor emerita of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in her 1982 dissertation, “The Conflictive Social Ideology of American Nursing: 1893, A Microcosm,” that despite all of the firsts in her life, Richards did not seem a brave pioneer.

“She did not take an assertive leadership role in her fledgling profession, but chose to dissent in a ‘silent’ manner from positions with which she disagreed, such as the American movement toward nursing registration. Her taciturnity may have come from her Puritan New England traditions,” Baer wrote.

The American Nurses Association inducted Richards into its Hall of Fame in 1976, highlighting her introduction of the concept of maintaining patient records, nurses notes and wearing uniforms.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., inducted Richards in 1994, citing how she brought “the work of nursing from menial chores to the great caregiving profession of today.”

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