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The 10 most influential female nurses of all time

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iStock | Anthony Baggett

Nurses impact lives every day. But once in a while, a nurse comes along who touches the lives of the world and not just her patients.

These women went above and beyond for the field of nursing. They served in wars, broke down racial barriers and campaigned for women’s rights. They have become role models for women everywhere, not just nurses. However, nurses can be especially proud to share a title with these ten ladies.

1. Florence Nightingale

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“The Lady with the Lamp” is the quintessential nurse figure. She cared for the poor and distressed and became an advocate for improving medical conditions for everyone. In her early life, Nightingale mentored other nurses, known as Nightingale Probationers, who then went to on also work to create safer, healthier hospitals.

In 1894, Nightingale trained 38 volunteer nurses who served in the Crimean War. These nurses tended to the wounded soldiers and sent reports back regarding the status of the troops. Nightingale and her nurses reformed the hospital so that clean equipment was always available and reorganized patient care. Nightingale soon realized that many of the soldiers were dying because of unsanitary living conditions, and, after the war, she worked to improve living conditions.

While she was at war, the Florence Nightingale Fund for the Training of Nurses was established in her honor. After the war, Nightingale wrote Notes on Nursing and opened the Women’s Medical College with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.

International Nurses Day is celebrated on Nightingale’s birthday, May 12, each year.

2. Margaret Sanger

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Best known as an activist for birth control and family planning, Margaret Sanger pioneered the women’s health movement. She distributed pamphlets with information on birth control and wrote on topics such as menstruation and sexuality. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which eventually became Planned Parenthood. She began the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923 – the first legal birth control clinic in the US.

3. Clara Barton

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Clara Barton grew up wanting to take care of people. When her father fell ill, Clara helped to care for him until his death. This inspired her to take an interest in nursing. During the Civil War, Barton organized medical supplies to be brought to the battlefields. Soon enough, she was allowed to go to the battles herself in order to care for wounded soldiers. In 1864, Barton became the “Lady in Charge” of Union hospitals, and the following year President Lincoln charged Barton with finding missing Union soldiers. In 1873, Barton began the American Red Cross, dedicated to helping disaster victims. She served as the organization’s first president.

4. Mary Eliza Mahoney

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Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American woman to become a nurse in the United States. Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years before she was admitted into the adjacent nursing school. Mahoney dedicated her life to nursing, heading up the Howard Orphan Asylum for African American children in New York. In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which eventually became part of the ANA. Each year, the ANA honors Mahoney with an award that represents her dedication to nursing and ending racial segregation. She has been inducted into both the ANA and National Women’s Hall of Fame.

5. Anna Caroline Maxwell

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Anna Caroline Maxwell was known as the “American Florence Nightingale.” During the Spanish-American War, Maxwell headed up the army nurses, thereby establishing the Army Nurse Corps. During WWI, Maxwell was given the Medal of Honor for Public Health. Maxwell was an essential element to the progression of practical nursing. After graduating the Boston City Training College for Nurses, Maxwell began the nurse training program at Montreal General Hospital. She also served as the superintendent of nurses at a number of east coast hospitals including Massachusetts General Hospital and St. Luke’s Hosptial. Maxwell was the first director of the New York Presbyterian Hospital, which would become the Columbia School of Nursing.

6. Dorothea Lynde Dix

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Dorothea Dix is best known for creating the first mental health system in the United States. Inspired by a trip to England, Dix returned to America curious how the US government treated the mentally unstable. Dix first succeeded with the construction of the North Carolina State Medical Society in 1849, dedicated to the care of the mentally ill. During the Civil War, Dix served as superintendent of the Union Army Nurses. She was a staunch believer in caring for everyone, and her nurses were some of the only caretakers of Confederate soldiers.

7. Ellen Dougherty

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Ellen Dougherty, of New Zealand, was the first Registered Nurse in the world. New Zealand was the first country to initiate the Nurse Registration Act that allowed for legal registration of nurses prior to completion of training. Dougherty trained at the Wellington Hospital and was the matron at Palmerston North Hospital.

8. Mabel Keaton Staupers

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Mabel Keaton Staupers was an advocate for racial equality in the field of nursing. Staupers served as the secretary of the National Associated of Graduate Colored Nurses. She advocated for the introduction of African American nurses into the Army and Navy during WWII. In 1945, she won the fight and all nurses, regardless of race, were to be included in the military. In 1950, Staupers dissolved the NAGCN as it re-aligned with the American Nursing Association.

9. Linda Richards

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After receiving little training, Linda Richards enrolled as the first student in the first American Nurse’s training school. After graduating, she began work at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Richards developed a system to track individual records of each patient. The US and UK both readily adopted Richard’s system. In 1874, Richards became the superintendent of the Boston Training School for Nurses and virtually turned the fledgling school around. Richards also traveled to England and was taught by Florence Nightingale. In her later years, Richards established the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools and led the Philadelphia Visiting Nurses Society. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

10. Claire Bertschinger

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Claire Bertschinger worked for the International Red Cross during the highly-publicized 1984 famine in Ethiopia.  While in Ethiopia, she ran a number of children’s feeding centers, although she was never able to feed everyone. Along with Ethiopia, she also worked in Panama, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea. Bertschinger has received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Woman of the Year Award and the Human Rights in Nursing Award.

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2 Responses to The 10 most influential female nurses of all time

  1. sharon parsons

    what an inspiring website! I have been a nurse for 34 years Now I work as an educator for iCU nurses in Bloomington, Indiana. Nice to see the varied reponses and information posted here.

  2. Matt Polani

    Why top FEMALE nurses???
    Females are MAJORITY in nursing!!
    What about the unsung minority: male nurses???
    We had equal duties, hours, pay; but often are called on to help with or take on overweight, unstable, innapropriate acting patients, or just plain extra physical work: moving furniture/ supplies.