10 Most Famous Nurses in History

Florence Nightingale
Nurses were typically women who provided the sick, injured and wounded with comfort, but not necessarily good -- or any -- medical care. Photos.com / Getty Images

It may surprise you that modern nursing -- the care and competency we've come to expect from our medical professionals -- is less than 150 years old in America. Not so long ago, many people preferred to forgo formal health care, considering nurses and hospitals to be far less safe than tending to illness or injury at home.

There was a time that nursing duties fell to nuns, or -- during wars -- to the military. Before the end of the 19th century, most nurses didn't have any formal training -- and many lacked any education at all. Nurses were typically women who provided the sick, injured and wounded with comfort, but not necessarily good -- or any -- medical care. It wasn't until the extraordinary women and men on our list advocated for change and pioneered a path for nurses from bedpan to bachelor's degree that the seeds of modern nursing were born.


Let's kick off our list of famous nurses with the woman who introduced nurse-midwifery to the United States.

10: Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge dedicated her life to rural public health care, but it wasn't until after she suffered a series of personal tragedies, including the deaths of her two young children, that she heard the call to nursing.

She studied at St. Luke's Hospital in New York, and became a registered nurse in 1910. Nursing took her to Boston and Washington, D.C., and even to France as part of the American Committee for Devastated France after World War I. While in France, Breckinridge was introduced to French and British nurse-midwives, a path Breckinridge decided dovetailed perfectly with her desire to bring health care to rural poor families in America. When she was in her early 40s, Breckinridge studied midwifery in London and is credited with introducing nurse-midwifery to America [source: Frontier Nursing Service].


In 1925, Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), a team of nurse-midwives devoted to bringing general and maternal care (including prenatal and postnatal care) to people living in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. The FNS nurses traveled by horseback to deliver babies and provide family care, accepting little money (or barter) as payment.

9: Mary Ezra Mahoney

Mary Ezra Mahoney was the first African-American woman to complete nursing training and become a registered nurse.

Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before she was accepted to the hospital's nursing school at the age of 33. Out of 42 candidates, only four graduated; Mahoney was one of those four.


Upon graduating, Mahoney registered with the Nurses' Directory at the Massachusetts Medical Library and went into private practice in New England. Because of her successes, the nursing school she attended loosened their policies against admitting black nursing candidates.

In the face of discrimination against black nurses, Mahoney advocated for the rights of all black nurses and went on to co-found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908.

8: Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Cannary

Calamity Jane's fame comes more from her adventurous exploits, but she also nursed smallpox patients in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
©Getty Images

Martha Jane Cannary, better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman, gun-slinger, scout for the Army and friend to legendary gunfighter James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. Jane dressed like a man and was known for her skills in shooting, drinking and cursing. Between 1852 and 1903, she lived in and explored much of the American West, from Missouri, where she was born, to Montana, Utah, Wyoming, the Dakotas and California, finding work as a cook, prostitute, miner, oxen-team driver and gold prospector, among other jobs she picked up along the way -- including nursing.

In 1878, Jane was living in the Black Hills near Deadwood, South Dakota, working as a rider for the Pony Express, when smallpox broke out in the town. It was Jane who volunteered to care for the eight quarantined men -- nursing them, as the story goes, with Epsom salts and cream of tartar [source: Lakewood Public Library]. Five of the stricken men recovered under her care.


7: Walt Whitman

While you may only know him as one of America's most famous poets, Walt Whitman was also a teacher, a journalist and, for three years during the Civil War, a volunteer nurse.

Whitman never had a formal nursing education, but was motivated to begin visiting wounded soldiers at military hospitals around the Washington, D.C., area after his brother, George, was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg while serving with the Union Army in 1862.


While visiting Civil War hospitals, Whitman helped care for the wounded, both body and soul. He listened to their stories and sent word to their families on their behalf. In a letter home to his own mother, Whitman recounted bringing ice cream to wounded soldiers convalescing throughout one D.C. hospital's 18 wards [source: Murray]. He raised soldiers' spirits, and he sat by them while they died. Whitman himself estimated he visited more than 100,000 wounded soldiers (both Union and Confederate) during 600 hospital visits [source: Biography.com].

6: Florence Guinness Blake

Florence Guinness Blake was a 20th century pioneer in nursing education, advocating for better training for nurses. Blake's contributions to medical training and education helped elevate caring for patients to a professional level.

Blake had a special interest in caring for children, and dedicated much of her work to pediatric nursing and pediatric nursing education. She taught in the field and went on to found and oversee an advanced pediatric nursing graduate program at the University of Chicago, the first of its kind in the United States. In addition to teaching, she also wrote, edited and contributed to nursing textbooks. In the 1950s, she penned and published "The Child, His Parents and the Nurse," a book designed to explain the parent-child relationship from infancy through adolescence, as well as address her belief that parents should be involved in the medical care of their children -- concepts that are still a central part of nursing and nurse education today.


5: Lillian Wald

Nurse Lillian Wald taught a class about at-home nursing and good hygiene to immigrant women on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1890s. After witnessing first-hand the unsanitary conditions and lack of adequate medical care in the tenement neighborhood, Wald was moved to found the Visiting Nurse Service. Two years later in 1895, with government and financial support, she moved the Visiting Nurse Service of New York into a larger building, founding the Henry Street Settlement House -- a community center offering comprehensive assistance services to people in need. As a result, Wald and her nursing staff became the first public health nurses in the United States.

As a public health pioneer, Wald was instrumental in getting nurses placed in American public schools and also helped establish the National Organization of Public Health Nursing, the National Women's Trade Union League to advocate for working women, and the Children's Bureau to help end child labor.


4: Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a leader in women's sexual and contraceptive education and advocacy at a time in America when the Comstock Act determined any information about birth control and contraceptives themselves obscene and immoral -- and therefore illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

Sanger grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, one of 11 children, and blamed her mother's death on the toll 18 pregnancies had taken on her body (Sanger's mother ultimately died of tuberculosis). Inspired by this, Sanger left home, attended nursing school and began working as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side in New York City. During this time, she saw first-hand the toll of unwanted pregnancies on immigrant women and their families, including botched back-alley and self-attempted abortions and the sickness, infection and death that followed.


In Brooklyn in 1916, Sanger opened the first American birth control clinic -- illegally -- which gave women education on reproductive health and information on using contraceptive devices. The clinic was raided nine days after it opened its doors. A few years later, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League -- which in 1942 would become the Planned Parenthood Foundation -- as well as the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, an organization that not only offered birth control, but also tracked its safety and effectiveness.

Sanger was also instrumental in leading the development of oral contraception, also known as "the pill." The first oral contraceptive gained FDA approval in 1960, just six years before Sanger's death.

3: Dorothea Dix

While Dorothea Dix's background and experience weren't in nursing -- she was a teacher and ran a successful private school in New England -- Dix is known for her work as a humanitarian and social reformer who spent more than 40 years lobbying for better care and treatment of those with mental illness, as well as better, more humane prison conditions.

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, Dix volunteered for the Union army and was appointed as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army by the Secretary of War. During this time, Dix oversaw about 6,000 women who were providing nursing services in military hospitals.


While advocating for the mentally ill, Dix was instrumental in founding 32 institutions specifically for treating mental health conditions, lobbied for state-supported mental hospitals, and campaigned for the rights of the mentally ill and inmates worldwide.

2: Clarissa "Clara" Barton

Clara Barton, born in 1821, began her professional life as a teacher and then went on to become a recording clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. But for several of the women on this list, war was the catalyst that helped transform humanitarians into famous nurses, and the story is the same for Barton. She became known as America's "angel of the battlefield" during the Civil War.

After witnessing shortages of medical and camp supplies, she volunteered to lead efforts to bring these necessities to the battlefield, and soon began nursing sick and wounded soldiers there. After the war, Barton led efforts to locate missing Civil War veterans, and continued to advocate for soldiers and veterans for years. In 1881, at age 60, she founded the American Red Cross, based on the International Red Cross relief organization, and led the group until 1904.


1: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale has been memorialized in countless memorials and paintings, such as this circa 1857 portrait.
©Getty Images

She's been called "The Lady With the Lamp," "The Queen of Nurses" and "The Soldier's Friend." Florence Nightingale is possibly the most well-known nurse in history.

Nightingale was born into a wealthy British family in 1820. She heard the call to nursing early in her life, and completed her training at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Germany in 1851. But it was what she experienced during the Crimean War that changed her path from 19th century nurse to legendary nurse.

Upon her arrival on the scene in Turkey with a team of 38 nurses, Nightingale found devastating conditions: unsanitary hospitals, few or no supplies, and poor patient care. Nightingale and her nurses tended to the wounded British soldiers, many of whom were also sick with cholera and malaria, and set about improving hospital hygiene in an effort to reduce infections. It worked, and after the war, in 1860, she founded the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, where nursing students would learn not only about patient care, but also about the importance of good hygiene and sanitary conditions in medicine. The school's curriculum laid the groundwork for modern nursing education.

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