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Famous Nurses in History

May 6, 2022 | Blog

Happy Nurses Week to all the amazing, dedicated nurses who keep our communities healthy and safe! To celebrate, we’re going to take a tour through history and examine some of the most important nurses who made the profession what it is today.  

Florence Nightingale 

We’ll start with the obvious one. Perhaps no person is more synonymous with nursing than Florence Nightingale. Her influence is so profound that Nurses Week ends with Nurses Day on May 12th, Nightingale’s birthday.  

Nightingale’s best known for her service during the Crimean War, where she aided the sick and wounded. It is here she earned her famous moniker, “Lady with the Lamp” due to the way she was often seen with, well, a lamp as she made her rounds throughout the barracks. Creative nicknames were in short supply back then. 

Upon returning from the war front, Nightingale used her experiences to advocate for better nursing practices and sanitation. Her efforts led to policies that would greatly reduce the mortality rate in hospitals across the world. 

Clara Barton 

Florence Nightingale may be the most famous nurse in history, but Clara Barton is a very close number two. In fact, Barton, was often referred to as ‘The Florence Nightingale of America’ (again, the nicknames left a bit to be desired). 

Barton got her start during the American Civil War, where she nursed both Union and Confederate troops. She was even known to head out to the battlefields and tend to soldiers in the heat of combat. Her efforts likely saved thousands of lives during this horrific period in American history. 

Her work didn’t just end with the war. In the 1880s, Barton founded the American Red Cross, an American institution synonymous with providing aid to anyone who needs it. 

Martha Jane Cannary 

Don’t know who Martha Jane Cannary is? If not, don’t worry. She’s better known by another name: Calamity Jane. Yep, one of the most renowned figures of the Wild West was also a nurse!  

During the 1878 smallpox outbreak in the town of Deadwood, Jane became a steadfast caregiver for those who came down with the disease. She brought many of her patients back to health, showing she was just as gifted with a medical kit as she was with a Winchester. 

While this is the most noteworthy nursing story related to Jane, there are other recorded instances of her taking on nursing jobs and caring for the sick. In fact, there’s a rumor that her nickname sprang from her selfless response to calamities. Finally, an interesting nickname origin! 

Mary Eliza Mahoney 

While Mary Eliza Mahoney is perhaps the least well-known on this list, she’s arguably the most important. Mary is the first-ever professionally trained Black nurse in American history.  

Growing up in the 1800s, it wasn’t easy for Mary to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse. For instance, she had to apply for training in the Northern U.S. since the South would immediately reject the application of a Black woman.  

She got accepted into a program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was one of only three people to graduate with her RN license at the end of the program, making history in the process.  

Besides breaking down racial barriers, Mahoney was a founding member of what would eventually become the American Nurses Association.  

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