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7 Famous Nurses Who Helped Shape the Profession

Famous nurses Nightingale

When you think of famous nurses who have helped build the profession into what it is today, who comes to mind? 

The fact is countless nurses have left their mark on the profession over the years. And oftentimes, they faced adversity to do it. Here, we recognize the positive contributions of seven nurse pioneers who have significantly impacted the nursing profession and their communities. From Mary Seacole to Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, these nurses paved the way for future generations. 

Mary Seacole (1805–1881)

Mary Seacole is celebrated for her contributions to healthcare during the Crimean War. 

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she learned the art of healing from her mother, a traditional healer and midwife. 

Despite facing racial prejudice and rejection from the British War Office, Seacole independently traveled to Crimea, where she established the "British Hotel" and fed, sheltered, and treated wounded soldiers. Seacole's dedication and bravery while treating soldiers on the battlefield earned her the nickname "Mother Seacole," and she became a well-respected figure in nursing. 

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)

Florence Nightingale, born in Florence, Italy, is widely regarded as an early pioneer of modern nursing. 

Despite coming from a privileged background, she felt a calling to care for the sick and the poor and defied her family's expectations by pursuing a career in nursing. 

Nightingale gained recognition for her efforts to improve the conditions in military hospitals during the Crimean War. It was during her nightly rounds, carrying a lamp to illuminate her path, that she earned the nickname, "The Lady With the Lamp." Her nightly rounds also was an opportunity to observe and record the impact of the changes she made to the hospital. Nightingale also founded the first secular nursing school in the world at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, which became a model for other institutions.

See a collection of Nightingale’s letters and photographs here.

Clara Barton (1821–1912)

Clara Barton was an American nurse best known for her role in founding the American Red Cross in 1881. 

Born in Massachusetts, Barton served as a nurse during the American Civil War, where she provided medical care to wounded soldiers on the front lines. This earned her a reputation for her dedication and bravery and the nickname, "Angel of the Battlefield." 

Following the war, she continued her humanitarian work, providing aid to soldiers and civilians in need. Barton's advocacy for the rights of the wounded and her efforts to provide disaster relief laid the groundwork for the establishment of the American Red Cross. Her efforts helped to establish nursing as a respected and essential profession.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney is the first African-American woman to work as a professionally trained nurse in the U.S. 

Overcoming racial and gender barriers, Mahoney graduated from the nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879. 

Although she faced discrimination and racism throughout her career, she remained dedicated to her work and became a trailblazer for future generations of African-American nurses. Throughout her career, Mahoney advocated for equality and diversity in nursing, emphasizing the importance of cultural competence and compassionate care. Mahoney's commitment served as an example to others to pursue their dreams. 

Margaret Sanger (1879–1966)

New York-born Margaret Sanger was a nurse and an activist, who was pivotal in pioneering the birth control movement in the U.S. 

Growing up in a large and impoverished family, Sanger witnessed her mother's struggles raising 11 children. This motivated her to become a nurse and care for women with limited access to family planning resources. 

Driven by a passion for social reform, she challenged the laws and societal norms of the time that restricted the dissemination of birth control methods. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and subsequently founded the American Birth Control League, which evolved into Planned Parenthood. 

Mary Breckinridge (1881–1965)

Mary Breckinridge was an American nurse and midwife best known for establishing the Frontier Nursing Service. 

Born in Tennessee, Breckinridge suffered several personal tragedies over her lifetime, including the death of her two children and two husbands. Despite her personal hardships, she dedicated her life to improving the health and well-being of mothers and children, particularly in rural and underserved areas. This goal brought her to Europe, where she studied the practice of nurse-midwifery. 

In 1925, Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky to offer prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care to mothers and infants in remote communities. Under her leadership, the service also trained nurse-midwives, who helped significantly improved maternal and infant mortality rates in the region.

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail (1903–1981)

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, a member of the Crow Nation, was born on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. In 1927, Yellowtail became the first Native American nurse in Montana, breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations of Indigenous healthcare professionals. 

Yellowtail was an advocate for the rights and healthcare needs of Indigenous communities, and played a significant role in bridging the gap between Western medicine and traditional Indigenous healing practices. 

Having witnessed the deaths of Indigenous people due to lack of access to medical care and other factors, Yellowtail worked tirelessly to address the healthcare disparities in Indigenous communities throughout her career. She strived to ensure that everyone received culturally sensitive and holistic healthcare. 

Shaping nursing and inspiring countless individuals to pursue careers in healthcare is a legacy these nurses share. They and so many other nurses have contributed not only to the advancement of medicine and science over hundreds of years, but also to prioritizing compassionate care.

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