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25 Most Famous Nurses in History

by Staff Writers on September 14, 2009

Nursing is a profession that seems to draw people with compassion and a desire to help others. Throughout history, nurses have been on the front lines of military conflicts, and have provided their caring expertise in hospitals and clinics around the world. If you decide to go into nursing, you will be in good company. Here are 25 of the most famous nurses in history.

  1. 380px-Florence_Nightingale_1920_reproductionFlorence Nightingale (1820 – 1910): Perhaps the most famous nurse in history, Florence Nightingale is known for her efforts to reform the British military health system. She was born to a patrician family, and her mother was distressed when Nightingale forsook her aristocratic duties to become a nurse. Nightingale was especially drawn to those in poverty. She traveled to a number of countries, and rejected an offer of marriage from the poet Milnes. She did not want anything to interfere with what she believed was a God-given calling as a nurse. In addition to being a nursing pioneer, Nightingale was known for her contributions to mathematics.
  2. Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892): Few people realize that the famous poet was also a volunteer nurse. Whitman worked as a nurse at Army hospitals set up during the Civil War. Many of his observations during this time led to his “The Great Army of the Sick.” Whitman was known for his egalitarian views, as well as for his political interest and poems.
  3. Mary Todd Lincoln (1818 – 1882): The wife of President Abraham Lincoln was a well-educated young woman from Lexington, Kentucky. She had the chance to marry Lincoln’s rival, Stephan A. Douglas. During the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln worked tirelessly as a nurse, tending wounded soldiers.
  4. Clara Barton (1821 – 1912): Clarissa Harlowe Barton is one of the most famous women in American history. She began her nursing career at the age of 11, caring for her brother after he fell while working on a barn. Barton is known as the founder of the Red Cross, which began as she carried supplied to the battlefield during the Civil War.
  5. Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 – 1926): The first African-American professional registered nurse was Mary Eliza Mahoney. She worked tirelessly to provide good service and medical care to her patients. She was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which late became the American Nurses Association. The Mary Mahoney Award is names after her.
  6. Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881): Born in Jamaica, Mary Seacole was a presence during the Crimean War. She was taught basic remedies and herbal medicine by her mother. Seacole spent her own money to travel to Crimea to help treat wounded soldiers after being passed over by Florence Nightingale. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands is vivid and interesting and offers insight into a woman who had difficulties in British society due to her mixed racial heritage.
  7. Mary Breckinridge (1881 – 1965): One of the first to found family care centers, Mary Breckinridge provided a new model of rural health care. She began her family centers in Appalachia. She founded the Frontier Nursing Service as a way to help others in far-flung areas of the U.S., where medical care was scarce. Breckinridge was also a nurse-midwife, receiving midwife training in Britain.
  8. Florence Guinness Blake (1907 – 1983): From her youth, Florence Guinness Blake was encouraged to become a nurse. She considered it a privilege, and received extensive training, even receiving a master of science degree and becoming a nursing teacher. She was well-known as a pediatric nurse, who helped advance the cause of graduate level nursing education for those who wanted to work with children.
  9. Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915): Recognized as a nursing pioneer in Belgium, Edith Cavell helped everyone. During WWI, she was known for helping all soldiers, no matter which side she was on. However, she achieved everlasting fame as someone who helped Allied soldiers escaped occupied Belgium. As a result, she was court-martialled and executed. The coverage of the event prompted outrage.
  10. Helen Fairchild (1885 – 1918): The letters Helen Fairchild sent to her American family about combat nursing during WWI made her famous. She was only a nurse for five years, after graduating from Pennsylvania Hospital, when she died of complications due to an ulcer surgery. As a result, she was not buried in the U.S., but at Somme American Cemetery and Memorial in Bony, France.
  11. Elizabeth Grace Neill (1846 – 1926): Although she was born in Scotland, Elizabeth Grace Neill spent a great deal of her life in Australia and New Zealand. She was actually a journalist. However, after seeing the practices of a disorganized nursing profession, Neill began campaigning for a system of registration for nurses. Neill herself became a qualified nurse, and set up a system of hospitals and training centers in New Zealand.
  12. Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966): The founder of the organization of what became Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was a nurse who worked tirelessly to provide women with adequate access to birth control. After seeing the straits that women found themselves due to lack of birth control, she was outspoken about birth control as a way for women to find equal footing by being in charge of their health and wellness by being able to decide when the best time for pregnancy was.
  13. Sophie Mannerheim (1863 – 1928): Baroness Sophie Mannerheim’s career started as a bank employee. However, she divorced in 1902, she took up nursing. She went to the Nightingale School at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, before returning to her native Finland. She was instrumental in bringing modern nursing to Finland.
  14. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown: The first African-American woman general in history, Hazel W. Johnson-Brown is also a skilled nurse. She served as the chief of the Army Nurse Corps. and served as dean of the Walter Reed Army Institute School of Nursing. She was introduced to the army while working at a Veteran’s hospital. It is hard to believe, considering her accomplishments, that she was first rejected for nursing school at the West Chester School of Nursing because of her race.
  15. Joyce Slinsky: For 45 years, Joyce Slinsky was a professional nurse. She retired not to long ago after 39 years in the ER at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison.
  16. Jeanne Prentice: Currently active as a nurse midwife, Jean Prentice works to bring awareness to natural and home births. She has been active in South Dakota, where she leads the PUSH! initiative which focuses on allowing women to be able to choose to have babies where they would like. She works through WomanKind Midwifery.
  17. Virginia Avenel Henderson (1897 – 1996): Often referred to as “the first lady of nursing”, Virginia Avenel Henderson is known for her development of nursing theory. She graduated from the Army School of Nursing, and also receive a M.A. in nursing education from Columbia University. Her theory that nurses should aid everyone in the quest for better overall health is recognized as a major contribution to the practice of nursing.
  18. Christiane Reimann (1916 – 1979): Born in Denmark, Christiane Reimann is recognized for her contributions to the international nursing community. She was the first full-time executive secretary to the International Council of Nurses. She left to manage a family farm in Syracuse, Italy in 1934, but remained devoted to the idea of nursing. The ICN has a prized name for her.
  19. Martha Ballard (1734 – 1812): This midwife worked to help mothers and babies. She is the great-aunt of famous nurse Clara Barton. Ballard is known for keeping a good diary of her medical practice as she went around by canoe or horse in what later became Maine.
  20. Dorothea Dix (1802 – 1887): Outraged by the treatment of the poverty-stricken insane, Dorothea Dix became the force behind the first mental asylums in the United States. Dix was an outspoken activist who also acted as a nurse during the Civil War, serving as the Superintendent of Army Nurses.

Famous Fictional Nurses

There have also been some rather famous fictional nurses, especially in recent years with the rise of the medical drama. Here are some of the most famous nurses on TV:

  1. “Hot Lips” Houlihan: This character in the TV show M*A*S*H was based on a Korean War Nurse, “Hotlips Hammerly.” The most watched episode in U.S. television history took place in the series finale, when she kisses Hawkeye Pierce.
  2. Christine Chapel: Gene Roddenberry wrote the character of Christen Chapel for his wife Majel Barrett for the series Star Trek. She appeared in each Star Trek series, and even receives homage in the 2009 movie, speaking off-screen dialogue.
  3. Audrey March Hardy: One of the most famous hospital shows was General Hospital, and one of the most famous characters was Audrey March Hardy, played by Rachel Ames from 1964 to 2007.
  4. Samantha Taggart: One of the most popular modern medical dramas is ER. Samantha Taggart is one of the most drama-ridden nurses on TV, punching out the abusive patients of boyfriends and blowing away her estranged husband when he tries to kidnap her.
  5. Carla Espinosa: The wife of surgical intern Chris Turk, Carla Espinosa is an extremely capable and feisty nurse on the show Scrubs. She is the head nurse, and tries to help those less fortunate.

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