Despite their prominence in modern times, the word “nurse” might still conjure up images of a beautiful and stoic woman in a white dress, apron and hat, compassionately wiping blood from a wounded soldier’s brow (well if it didn’t, it does now). This is because we have nurses throughout history whose selflessness and dedication to their profession continue to touch us through the generations. While we celebrate the most influential nurses on this list, it’s important to remember that every nurse makes an impact on his or her patients’ lives and the majority of them go unappreciated. Next time you’re in the hospital, give your nurses a sincere word of thanks for all that they’ve done and continue to do, whether they are a clinical nurse leader or a school nurse or even just a nursing student.
Claire Bertschinger, a native of England born to a Swiss father and British mother, could barely read or write until she was 14 because of dyslexia, but she ended up overcoming her learning disability and training to become a nurse. It was while she was working for the Red Cross in 1984 (which, incredibly, might never have happened had she not held Swiss citizenship along with British), helping to ease the suffering of starving children, victims of the war and famine in Ethiopia, that Bertschinger came to national and worldwide attention. Her work with feeding centers for Ethiopian children was seen often on TV and inspired Bob Geldof to create Band Aid, which was then followed by Live Aid, which raised more than $193 million. Bertschinger has also worked in Panama, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea and is the recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal.
The famous “Leaves of Grass” author in fact volunteered and served as a nurse during the Civil War in the Army hospitals. Whitman wrote of his experiences as a nurse and they were published as “The Great Army of the Sick” in a New York newspaper in 1863, then some 12 years later as part of the book “Memoranda During the War.”
Dorothea Lynde Dix
In 1836, Dorothea Lynde Dix became exposed to the cruelties and abuses against the insane in England and returned to America only to find that such treatment was common in the asylums on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus began her work, advocating for reform of the care of the mentally ill all throughout the United States. When the American Civil War broke out, Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union and while she was eventually removed from the position (after too many disagreements with the Army doctors), she is remembered for her willingness to care for Confederate soldiers – one of the very few nurses to do so.
Florence Nightingale is, perhaps, the most famous nurse of all time and for good reason. Nicknamed “The Lady with the Lamp” (because she was known for making the rounds at night), it was her nursing during the Crimean War which brought Nightingale such renown. Her efforts and experiences near Istanbul in 1894, where she cared for the diseased and wounded soldiers, would inspire her later work advocating sanitary conditions in hospitals. Nightingale’s “Notes on Nursing” was published in 1859 and it was foundation on which the curriculum of the Nightingale schools was based. In 1974, Joan Quixley called Nightingale the “founder of modern nursing.” She cared for the sick not only by tending to them physically, but through her gift for mathematics, which she employed by creating visuals – graphs, specifically the pie chart – in order to present data in the most effective way possible. Her influence is far-reaching; her schools and writing live on, but she has also been the subject of biographies, historical fiction, TV programs, films and statues.
Clara Barton was an American patent clerk, teacher, humanitarian and nurse who was dubbed “The Angel of the Battlefield.” In her position as “lady in charge” of the hospitals for the Army of the James, she was at the front lines of some of the most violent carnage of the Civil War. In 1873, she became the foundress of the American Red Cross, persuading President Chester A. Arthur for permission to establish the foundation here in the United States. She went on to travel the world with the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing relief and aid in Turkey, as well as in Cuba and Galveston, Texas.
These figureheads of nursing are enough to inspire young people looking at pursuing nursing masters programs, children dreaming of working in a hospital someday or simply anyone looking to seek genuine good in their fellow man.
This article was written by Sylvia Blargsen of New York City. Blargsen has worked in differing facets of the medical field for the vast majority of her professional life.