5 Besides Florence

July 14th, 2011


By , BSN, RN

Ask anyone to name a famous nurse and you tend to get just one answer—Florence Nightingale. Now, that's a great answer, and if this was Family Feud you would grab a bunch of points but probably never finish the set. So, here are five other people besides Florence who have made huge contributions not just to nursing, but to the world.

At the end we'll get to my personal favorite of lesser known or unlikely nurses. Walt Whitman is best known as a writer of remarkable style who brought the epic poem to American verse. He sang of the "body electric" and paid homage to the common man but also witnessed the world at its worst.

  1. Clara Barton (1821-1912) Flooding victims in North Dakota, tornado survivors in Missouri, earthquake and tsunami sufferers in Japan can all thank the work of one Civil War era nurse for the some of the aid they have received this past year from the American Red Cross.

    Clarissa Harlowe Barton (known as Clara) began her nursing career at the age of 11 when she took over caring for her brother after he fell off a barn. Like many American women, Barton really came into her own in nursing during the Civil War. She was working in Washington, D.C. when the Battle of Bull Run broke out. When the battle ended, Barton organized a way for people in the Northern states to donate and distribute medical supplies and other necessary items. As the war progressed, Barton would take on many roles including traveling with military ambulances tending to wounded soldiers in both the North and the South. She was in Petersburg and Richmond and at the Battle of Fredericksburg. As the war was coming to an end, Barton was pressed into service by President Abraham Lincoln to search for and identify missing Union soldiers.

    in 1870, while visiting Europe, she saw the work being done by the International Red Cross. So inspired by their work, Barton returned to the U.S. and set up her own organization to assist those in need should another national crisis ever arise. That organization, founded in 1881, is still known as the American Red Cross, and its workers and volunteers continue the mission to aid established by Barton all those years ago.

  2. Margaret Sanger (1879 to 1966) Nurse Margaret Sanger's "Planned Parenthood" has been controversial since its inception in 1942. Currently, the organization is fighting to provide services in a number of states which have cut funding to the family planning institution. Sanger's crusade to legitimize birth control and give women the right to choose was born in her own personal history.

    Sanger was the sixth of eleven children. Her mother died when Sanger was quite young, and the death was attributed to her many pregnancies. While working as a nurse in the ghettos of New York City, Sanger saw firsthand the complications from unwanted pregnancies and self-induced or back alley abortions. It became her mission to educate the working class about birth control.

    Sanger fought opposition from the government and the Catholic Church, and her teachings were portrayed as lewd and pornographic. On many levels, those battles continue today, almost 60 years after the Planned Parenthood Federation began. Sanger fought the good fight well into her later years, spreading her message of the need for birth control and education to any who would listen.

  3. Mary Todd Lincoln (1818 – 1882) The widow of one of the nation's most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln, is often unkindly remembered for only one thing. In what many today see as a miscarriage of justice, Mary Lincoln was labeled mentally ill and sent to a mental asylum by her own son. History has not been generous, yet this much misunderstood First Lady was a nurse of extreme kindness and fortitude during this country's civil war.

    Mary Todd Lincoln was a well-educated young woman from Lexington, Kentucky. She received no formal training in any field but picked up the reins of caregiver when her country called. Because she was from a Southern state, Mrs. Lincoln was often criticized and her allegiances questioned during the Civil War; however, she took on the role of a volunteer nurse for her husband's Union army and earned respect. She put in almost impossible hours frequenting hospitals, cleaning wounds and consoling and feeding those soldiers suffering unbearable pain.

    The story is told of the First Lady's visit to Campbell Hospital shortly after several limb amputations had been performed. The stench was intolerable and the amputees lay groaning in anguish. Many of the volunteers left, overcome by the odor and the noise. Mary Lincoln stayed, holding the hands of those suffering and bathing their feverish brows with wet rags.

  4. Dorothea Dix (1802 – 1887 One of Mrs. Lincoln's contemporaries, Dorothea Dix, was a nurse with a passion for helping the mentally ill. In 1841, Dix was approached by a Unitarian Universalist minister to teach a class for incarcerated women at a Massachusetts jail. Upon seeing the deplorable conditions of the facility, she immediately began working to improve them. She advocated separating those who were imprisoned simply for mental illness from convicted criminals, and her reports on the poor conditions in existing mental hospitals in Massachusetts moved the legislature to pass laws improving sanitation and ventilation.

    Dix was also a nurse during the Civil War and served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses. She was in charge of training the women who would serve as nurses. Before the Civil War, Army nursing duties had been the realm of male nurses only. Dix convinced the skeptical military officials that women could do the job perfectly well and recruited 2000 women into the army. Dix had very strong views on how this training should be undertaken and she even made a mandatory rule wherein she only accepted middle-aged, homely women into the program.

    Army nursing care markedly improved under her supervision. She took good care of the nurses who toiled in the harsh environment, and even went to the extent of obtaining health care supplies from private agencies when the government was not willing to provide them. She worked tirelessly to improve sanitation and cleanliness in the hospitals that were treating the wounded soldiers.

    After the war, much of her time was spent on behalf of the mentally ill, and she was among the first to recognize the importance of providing those with mental illness as normal a life as possible.

  5. Walt Whitman (1819 to 1892) Walt Whitman was already an established writer when he volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War. In his role as hospital nurse in Washington, D.C., he was the one who often wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved mothers and fathers of the soldiers whose corpses were mounting up in the hospitals and out on the battlefields. In 1863, in a New York newspaper, his observations were published, and 12 years later he wrote a book, entitled, Memoranda During The War.

    " WASHINGTON, Monday, Feb.23, 1863.

    The military hospitals, convalescent camps, & c. in Washington and its neighborhood sometimes contain over fifty thousand sick and wounded men. Every form of wound, (the mere sight of some of them having been known to make a tolerably hardy visitor faint away,) every kind of malady, like a long procession, with typhoid fever and diarrhea at the head as leaders, are here in steady motion. The soldier’s hospital how many sleepless nights how many woman’s tears, how many long and aching hours and days of suspense, from every one of the Middle, Eastern and Western States, have concentrated here! Our own New York, in the form of hundreds and thousands of her young men, may consider herself here — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indians and all the West and Northwest the same — and all the New-England States the same.

    Upon a few of these hospitals I have been almost daily calling as a missionary, on my own account, for the sustenance and consolation of some of the most needy cases of sick and dying men, for the last two months. One has much to learn in order to do good in these places. Great tact is required. These are not like other hospitals. By far the greatest proportion (I should say five-sixths) of the patients are American young men, intelligent, of independent spirit, tender feelings, used to a hardy and healthy life; largely the farmers are represented by their sons — largely the mechanics and working men of the cities. Then they are soldiers. All these points must be borne in mind."

2 Responses to “5 Besides Florence”

  1. Marie at Cheap Nursing Books Says:

    One more I am particularly fond of: Mary Breckinridge. She was a “health” pioneer from the late 1800s that brought health services to the rural areas of the Midwest.

    Her health services and midwifery centers are still serving the people of the rural Kentucky mountains. My great-grandmother was from Hyden, KY and often spoke of the Frontier Hospital and midwifery center that “Nurse Mary” started.

  2. admin Says:

    Wow, it is particularly interesting that you’ve heard first hand accounts of such pioneering nurses. Thank you for sharing.

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