5 Lessons From Nursing Greats Of The Past

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

Many of those who have walked the hallowed halls of hospitals before you have forged unique paths in nursing history.

What lessons can you take from their journeys and their experiences?

Here are five lessons from five greats.

  1. Strive for change when change is warranted. (Florence Nightingale)
    Born to an aristocratic family, Florence Nightingale could have lived a life of leisure. To the dismay of her parents, she rejected many wealthy suitors as a young woman and decided to follow what she considered her divine calling: nursing. For the British Army, this was a good thing because when Nightingale went to Turkey in the mid-1850s to nurse British soldiers in an army hospital there, she was appalled by the sanitation conditions and rallied for change.

The military wasn’t pleased with her “criticism” of their procedures and basically ignored her at first. Using a contact at the The Times in London, Nightingale got an editor on board her cause, and when her concerns were publicized and subsequently received some attention from the government, she was permitted to make changes to improve sanitation in the army hospital.

This reduced the death rate of soldiers. For her entire nursing career, Nightingale continued to focus on hospital reform that improved conditions for patients. Rocking the boat when it’s in the best interest of your patients is a good thing.

  1. It’s never too late to do something great. (Clara Barton)
    If you’re something of a trivia guru, you know that Clara Barton technically wasn’t a nurse. She knew a great deal about nursing and spent much of her life caring for wounded soldiers, but she never trained as a nurse—she was actually a trained teacher. With that cleared up, we still think it’s acceptable to say that she was a nursing great.

A remarkable woman, Barton devoted many years to nursing on American battlefields and became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” Retirement wasn’t a concept that Barton ever embraced. In 1881, when she was 60 years old, she founded the American Red Cross and led the organization for 23 years, until she was 83. Even then, she wasn’t ready to stop. She went on to found the National First Aid Association of America and remained its honorary president for five years. She died a few years later at the age of 91.

Here was someone who continued to do amazing things for literally as long as she could. Her drive may have been a big factor in her longevity, and that should make all of us rethink retirement and what it will be for us.

  1. There’s a whole world—beyond those hospital walls—that needs nursing care. (Mary Breckinridge)
    Both of Mary Breckinridge’s children died when they were very young, and Breckinridge decided to make it her life’s work to improve the health of women and children in rural regions of the United States—regions in which families had limited or no access to healthcare. So, at the age of 29, shortly after her husband and children had all passed away, she essentially started her life over and became a nurse.

In 1925, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service to provide care to the isolated mountainous region of eastern Kentucky. Over the next several decades, this outreach model of nursing was adopted by the rest of the country and the rest of world, leading to the development of in-home nursing services, district nursing service centers and district hospitals, all geared to providing nursing services to people residing far from major cities and towns. Breckinridge was also a leader in bringing midwifery services to women who couldn’t feasibly travel to major centers for maternity care and delivery care.

A major influence behind bringing the concept of “public health nursing” into the limelight, Breckinridge changed the lives of many and opened up whole new nursing career avenues for nurses everywhere. If you’re looking for a career shift, explore the world beyond the facility or institution you’re currently working in.

  1. Nothing should stop you from doing what you’re passionate about. (Mary Seacole)
    We’d all like to think that discrimination no longer exists in modern society, but the truth is—and all we have to do is watch the news to see for ourselves—that to a certain extent it still does. And that discrimination can be based on gender, race or even the presence of a disability.

For Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, who lived in the 1800s, it was racial discrimination that threatened to hold her back. Even Florence Nightingale herself passed Seacole over and refused to include her in the group of nurses she took to the Crimea to care for soldiers injured in the Crimean War. But Seacole borrowed money and went there on her own anyway. She spent most of her life living on the edge of poverty; fundraising efforts were what helped her travel to various parts of the world throughout her life, providing nursing care to the sick.

  1. Provide care for the whole person, not just the disease or illness. (Virginia Avenel Henderson)
    Credited with the development of nursing theory that promoted a profoundly humanitarian perspective, Virginia Avenel Henderson started out as a public health nurse and then became a full-time nursing instructor in Virginia.

Her oft-quoted axiom was “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.”

Rather than concentrating on nursing techniques or procedures, she focused on the fundamental role of the nurse in relationship to patients and felt that psychiatric nursing was a critical component of nursing training. She was one of the earliest proponents of the idea that nursing should care for all aspects of the individual—a concept that permeates modern healthcare.


This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

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