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History’s Favorite Nurses

When we think about the history of nursing, rarely do we think back as far as 380 AD when the world’s first general hospital was established in Rome, Italy. To say that nursing is a “long and storied” profession is an understatement. Our favorite nurses, the ones that capture our imagination and garner our greatest respect, are incredibly modern when placed against the context of ancient Rome.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is by far the most famous nurse in history, because of her work with the British military health system. She left a rich family background to dedicate her life to serving poverty-stricken individuals around the world. In 1860, she founded the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, the institution that pioneered modern nursing education. What is not readily known about Nightingale was that she was also a leader in establishing the mathematical concept of medical statistics.

Walt Whitman

Primarily known for his poetic work, Walt Whitman was also a volunteer nurse who worked in Army hospitals throughout Washington D.C. during the Civil War. His desire to serve others began when his own brother was injured during the Battle of Fredericksburg. While not formally trained as a nurse, Whitman understood the connection between body and soul and helped to ease the soldiers’ pain through healing words and a compassionate touch. He estimated that he made 600 visits during the War, tending equally to those from the Union and Confederate armies.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton did not set out to become a nurse. She was a teacher and later a recording clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. But like Walt Whitman, she was spurred into action by the medical needs of those wounded in the Civil War. She volunteered to bring supplies to army hospitals and camps, and became active in the nursing practice as a result. Called the “angel of the battlefield,” Barton went on to advocate for soldiers and veterans for many years after the War was over. She is best known as the founder the American Red Cross in 1881.

Mary Breckenridge

Like others, it was tragedy that called Mary Breckenridge to the nursing profession. She worked in New York, Boston and France, and studied midwifery in London. Breckenridge brought the practice of nurse-midwifery to the U.S. and also became a pioneer in rural public health care, creating the concept of the family care center. She founded the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), where nurse-midwives traveled by horseback to deliver babies and provide general medical care to the underserved population of Appalachia.


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