Nursing is considered a modern profession and in practicality, it is only about 150 years old. It wasn’t that long ago that no one sought formal medical care unless it was absolutely necessary, so nurses were considered more dangerous than treating an illness at home. In the early days of nursing, many of them were also nuns. It is because of some of these famous nursing leaders that this career finally began to be seen as supportive and beneficial.
1. Mary Breckinridge
Breckinridge didn’t want to become a nurse – at least not at first. She suffered a number of tragedies in life, however, including have two of her children die. That’s when she decided to enter nursing. Her focus was to help those in rural areas get the medical help they needed. She became a midwife after traveling to France after World War I, studied in London, and is considered the American pioneer of midwifery.
2. Mary Mahoney
Mahoney was the first African-American woman to complete formal training to become a registered nurse. Only four candidates graduated from her class and she eventually found her way to a private practice in New England. She paved the way so that other minority women could get into nursing school and Mahoney constantly advocated for equal rights. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.
3. Lillian Wald
Wald became involved in nursing after seeing the lack of cleanliness in her local neighborhood. She taught constant classes about at-home nursing and the importance of good hygiene on the Lower East Side to recent immigrants and she and her staff eventually became the first public health nurses in the United States. Wald also campaigned successfully to get nurses into public schools and worked to end child labor while unionizing nurses to advocate for working women.
4. Walt Whitman
Many people know that Walt Whitman was a prolific poet, but he was also a volunteer nurse during the Civil War for over three years. He never had a formal education in nursing, but as a journalist he found the motivation to help others after visiting wounded soldiers in Civil War hospitals. Whitman cared for them by treating their wounds and listening to their stories. He once brought ice cream to 18 different hospital wards and is estimated to have helped more than 100,000 people during his three years and over 600 visits to the wounded.
5. Margaret Sanger
At a time when contraception and birth control were considered obscene, Sanger campaigned to help women be able to know more about their reproductive health. Her first clinic was illegal because the government at the time considered the entire practice immoral. That clinic was raided just 9 days after being opened. Sanger also founded the American Birth Control League, which still exists today in the form of Planned Parenthood. Sanger also took the lead in the development of oral contraception, which was granted approval in 1960.