Let’s face it, history would look a lot different without nurses. Nurses tend to soldiers on the battlefield at the brink of death. They help deliver babies who grow up to be future leaders and innovators. They have some of the most incredibly stories and yet they are often unsung heroes. Therefore, in honor of National Nurses Week, here are five amazing nurses from history:
Mary Seacole (1805 – May 14, 1881)
Mary was born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Scottish soldier and a free black Jamaican woman. Her mother specialized in traditional medicine and taught Mary everything she knew. She traveled to London, Panama, as well as other parts of the Caribbean, learning as much as she could about medicine and setting up various hotels along the way. When she applied to the War Office to help in the Crimean War in 1853, she was denied but Mary wasn’t one to take no for an answer. She traveled to Crimea using her own funds and quickly established the British Hotel. The British Hotel provided food and shelter for British soldiers. She also provided remedies cholera and dysentery in hospitals and on the battlefield. The British Army referred to her as “Mother Seacole”. When she was ill and impoverished later in life, several military men held a large benefit festival to raise funds for her.
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892)
While we know Walt Whitman primarily for his writing, he had a different career for a short time and served as a male nurse in the Civil War. His nursing career began at the battle zone in Fredericksburg, Virginia after finding his brother recovering from a superficial facial wound. While there, he was moved by the suffering of the wounded and volunteered as a nurse. He oversaw a trainload of causalities being transferred to Washington DC hospitals. During the journey, he spent time with the wounded, writing down messages to their families and offering comfort. He continued working at the hospitals for the remainder of the war. Walt later considered those years of service “the greatest privilege and satisfaction…and, of course, the post profound lesson of my life.”
Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820 – August 13, 1910)
You cannot have a list about historical nurses without Florence Nightingale. Florence is recognized as the founder of modern nursing. She trained in Egypt, Germany, and France before landing a position as a gentlewoman in a London hospital. During the Crimean War, she arrived to a hospital with unsanitary conditions, minimal supplies, and negligible patient care. Not only were soldiers wounded from battle, they also suffered from typhus, cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. She and a team of 38 nurses treated the soldiers and focused on improving hospital hygiene. Conditions in the hospital greatly improved as did the mortality rate of soldiers in her care. Her methods were so successful that she established the Nightingale School of Nursing in London, which is still running today. It ranks as the number one nursing faculty in London/United Kingdom and ranks 6th in the world.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (May 7, 1845 – January 4, 1926)
Mary was the first African-American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States. The daughter of freed slaves, she worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years before she was finally accepted into the program. Of the 42 students, she was one of four students to pass program and in 1879, she became the first ever African American in history to earn a professional nursing license. Mary worked as a private care nurse for 30 years and later co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in New York. The NACGN focused on creating a more supportive and inclusive nursing community. She also advocated women’s equality and civil rights. Mary is recognized as a pioneer in the nursing community for black men and women who dreamed of being nurses.
Edith Cavell (December 4, 1865 – October 12, 1915)
Born to a poor family in England, Edith worked at several British and Belgian hospitals until she was appointed as the first matron at Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium. During her time at the Institute, she established a professional journal discussing good nursing practices, which put her in high demand. She trained nurses in 3 different hospitals, 24 communal schools, and 13 kindergartens. When World War 1 broke out, Edith treated both Allied and German wounded soldiers without discrimination. She also sheltered and funneled 200 British soldiers out of occupied Belgium using false papers and guides. She was later arrested for harboring British soldiers and found guilty of treason. The night before her execution by the occupying German government, she said, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Today, she is remembered as for her humanity and courage.
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