Nurses Week: 4 Nursing Role Models Who Changed Nursing Forever

Nursing role models from history

Many landmark innovations and inventions in the medical field have been born from the minds of outstanding nurses. In honor of National Nurses Week, we want to highlight the amazing lives and brilliant minds of just a few of medical history’s greatest nursing pioneers. History is chocked with innumerable advances by nurses, all done for the humble sake of making life better for their patients, and whose innovative thinking transformed into an industry-changing advancement.

Florence Nightingale || Sanitation

If there is one name you should know before starting your ABSN journey at Concordia, it’s Florence Nightingale. Nightingale is credited as the first nurse to formalize the profession by offering training for England’s student nurses. She trained 38 nursing students in battlefield care and brought them to the front lines of the Crimean War in 1894, where she made her breakthrough. The dominating medical theory of infection at the time was the “miasma” theory, or the “bad air” theory, where the disease was assumed to be passed by bad smells or stagnant air. The germ theory of disease was less than a decade old as a scientific hypothesis, but Nightingale was sure that patient deaths were related to the dirty equipment and unsanitary beds the soldiers were laying in.

She and her nurses in training set about reforming the hospital with a standard sanitization process so that incoming patients were able to get clean equipment and bedding. As a result, patient mortality dropped to new lows for a battlefield hospital, from 42% to 2%, and her sanitation methods proved to be equally effective back home in England, ushering a new era of reduced infection and death in hospitals all over the world.

She later used this experience to open the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St Thomas' Hospital in London, becoming a nurse educator as many of our own BSN students do later in their careers. Her social advancements were not limited to nursing either, as Nightingale advocated for starvation relief in India, among many other social causes she championed as a cornerstone of her own Lutheran faith – the same faith that she felt called her to nursing.

Perhaps her greatest contribution to medical history is her writings, which Nightingale intentionally wrote in simple English so that her medical knowledge could be available to anyone with basic literacy. No matter the era, all nurses should read Nightingale’s landmark book, Notes on Nursing, which is filled with timeless wisdom on how to manage care, patient advice, lighting, bedding and many other practical and relevant skills.

Timeline of Nightingale’s Life

  • 1820: Born May 12
  • 1844: Nightingale announces her intention to pursue nursing, despite strong objections from her family
  • 1850: Observes the care of the sick and ailing at a Lutheran encampment in Germany and feels a calling from God to do the same work
  • 1853: Becomes superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London, a position she held until October 1854
  • 1854: Travels to front lines of Crimean War with 38 student nurses
  • 1855: Within a year, after Nightingale pleads for aid from the British Government through the newspapers, the UK sends a team to improve frontline conditions. Mortality drops from 42% to 2%
  • 1859: Nightingale writes Notes on Nursing, a groundbreaking collection of plain English writings on the art and science of nursing
  • 1877: Nightingale trains American nurse Linda Edwards
  • 1883: Nightingale is awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria.
  • 1904: She is appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John (LGStJ).
  • 1907: Becomes the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.
  • 1908: Given the Honorary Freedom of the City of London.
  • 1910: Passes away in her sleep at age 90

Dorothea Dix || Mental Health

One of Concordia's core nursing education philosophies is holistic body, mind and spiritual patient care. A patient’s mental health can have a profound effect on their physical health, especially with sleep quality and healing time. However, this is a relatively new concept in the United States, a struggle resolved by the work of Dorothea Dix. After visiting the UK in the mid-19th century, Dix realized that America’s health care system was entirely inadequate for caring for our mentally ill patients. We lacked any formal system for caring for the mentally ill aside from locking them in regular prisons with the criminal population, or worse, in filthy cattle-like conditions of asylums.

Because of health difficulties throughout her life, Dix found herself in Europe for treatment and was able to connect with prominent social reform advocates tackling British social problems such as the treatment of the mentally ill and the treatment of the poor. Dix was amazed that Britain was reforming its mental health facilities, moving them away from jail-like conditions to an inpatient care facility with gardens and functional therapies. She brought this reform back to the U.S. where she founded the North Carolina State Medical Society in 1849, created to manage the care of the state’s mentally ill. Without this change, mentally ill patients in America may have continued to be wards of the penal system.

Now, RN’s can use their degree to pursue a rewarding career in mental health nursing, helping those with mental health issues rediscover their abilities, their value, and get back to living a meaningful life. In our ABSN, you’ll have the opportunity to experience this during your NUR 355 course, titled “Nursing Care of Clients with Mental and Behavioral Health Issues.”

Timeline of Dix’s Life

  • 1802: Born April 4
  • 1802-1839: Dix becomes a prominent organizer and reformer of failing schools, as well as a teacher and a private governess
  • 1840: Travels to Europe and observes the socio-political reforms taking place in British society and decides to create the same change in the US
  • 1840-1841: Returns to the US and begins touring the states doing inspections of the facilities available to the mentally ill, writing hair-raising reports of the inhumane conditions and presenting them to state legislatures in Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Illinois, Louisiana and North Carolina, among others, leading to sweeping changes to these institutions. She did similar work in Nova Scotia, Scotland and many other nations around the world.
  • 1865: Is named Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army during the Civil War, is known for caring for wounded Confederate soldiers that their own army often left behind in lost battles.
  • 1869: After the war, Dix returns to her previous work of surveying hospitals for the indigent mentally ill
  • 1881: The New Jersey State Legislature set aside funds to create a private suite to house Dix as long as she lived, and she moves into the facility where she lives until her death in 1887

Linda Richards || Record Keeping

Another central element of your Concordia ABSN education, and the foundation of hospital care, is learning to chart and document all of your patient’s history, allergies, procedures, and medications. It’s hard to imagine health care’s existence without this essential documentation, but it wouldn’t exist without the solution created by nurse Linda Richards.

Not all nursing pioneers make their mark in bedside care as Florence Nightingale did. Richards realized, after working in a few different hospitals, that the American health care system had a critical Achilles heel: there was no centralized record keeping at any hospital. Aside from notes doctors took for their own benefit, patients would essentially come in and be treated “blind” every time they entered the hospital, with no charting of previous hospital visits or procedures. Richards knew that this disjointed – or, often, non-existent – record-keeping system was the reason physicians couldn’t seem to help patients with chronic illnesses, and almost certainly contributed to patient mortality.

Richards’ analytical mind, an essential element for every great nurse, helped reinvent the records division at hospitals all across the nation, then to the United Kingdom. This administrative revolution created a system where diseases, allergies, and past procedures could be tracked, and doctors were able to see a long view of their patients’ histories. Instead of trying the same treatments repeatedly, doctors could cycle through protocols efficiently, saving patients unnecessary pain and treating diseases much more effectively. Once again, patient mortality dropped across both nations, and in 1994, Linda Richards was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her contribution to medicine.

Timeline of Linda Richards’ Life

  • Born: July 27, 1841
  • 1854: Linda cares for her mother until her death from tuberculosis
  • 1865: Cares for fiancée George Poole until his death from a severe Civil War injury in 1869
  • 1870: Moves to Boston to pursue nursing
  • 1872: Enrolls in inaugural American Nurse’s training school class
  • 1873: Moves to New York and is hired as Night Supervisor for Bellevue Hospital, creates revolutionary record keeping system
  • 1874: Returns to Boston, is named superintendent of the Boston Training School for nurses, manages school from brink of closure to top 10 nursing training institutions in the nation
  • 1877: Travels to England for 7-month intensive training under Florence Nightingale
  • 1885: Establishes Japan’s first nursing school in Kyoto
  • 1885-1911: Establishes various nursing schools across the United States until retiring from the profession in 1911

Mary Breckinridge || Rural Maternal Nursing

First and foremost, our ABSN students are driven to serve their community and the world, which is why Concordia includes a course called “Nursing in the Community.” We want our students to use their best gifts to make the world a better place as one of our core Lutheran philosophies. Sometimes you’ll find that a small intervention can make a world of difference, as one Appalachian midwife nurse discovered at the turn of the 20th Century.

Not all high-impact mission nursing involves crossing the US border, as Mary Breckenridge proved all of her life. Breckenridge was born in Memphis to a prominent family, enjoying all the spoils of a comfortable life, such as private education in Switzerland and frequent global travel. But her parents’ attempt to set Mary up for a similar life fell apart through the interventions of her first husband’s and children’s deaths, the infidelity of her second husband, and a divorce. So Mary took up her maiden name, Breckinridge, and turned to nursing school to find a new purpose in her life.

She traveled to France following the First World War as the volunteer head of Child Hygiene and District Nursing with the American Committee for Devastated France. During this time in Europe, she met other nurses who had midwife training and were able to help lower maternal death during childbirth, especially in rural areas. Breckinridge knew that a similar training had the potential to lower rural Appalachia’s huge maternal death rates, especially in places where there was no formal medical help available.

After getting midwife training in England (which was unavailable stateside), she returned to the US and founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which later became the Frontier Nursing Service. Based out of a large log cabin in rural Wendover, Kentucky, Mary and her midwives rode on horseback across the rough mountainous terrain, in any season and weather, to help Appalachian mothers safely deliver babies in desperately poor and squalid conditions. The American Journal of Medicine, in a 1934 article about infant and maternal mortality, highlighted the staggering efficacy of Breckinridge’s program thusly:

The lives of mothers and children in a so-called backward country area can be saved by those who know and are willing to lead, is nowhere better demonstrated than by the work of the nurses of the Frontier Nursing Service in the Appalachian Mountains under the inspiring direction of Mrs. Mary Breckinridge. These mountain women have been helped to have their babies safely in a terrain without roads and amid primitive conditions. Similar organized effort would save women and infants now being lost in many rural areas much less difficult to traverse.

Timeline of Mary Breckinridge’s Life

  • Born: February 17, 1881
  • 1914: Gives birth to son Clifford
  • 1916: Gives birth to premature baby girl who dies shortly thereafter
  • 1920: Joins American Committee for Devastated France
  • 1924: Breckinridge receives midwife training in England
  • 1925, May: Mary returns to the US and founds Frontier Nursing Service
  • 1925, September: The Frontier Nursing Service delivers its first baby
  • 1925-1965: Mary Breckinridge oversees rural deliveries and the training of rural midwives until her death on May 16, 1965

A Common Thread: Powered by Passion & Pragmatism

Though these stories come from different eras and have vastly different endings, each of these nurses shared a common goal of improving the lives of as many patients as they could, often one patient at a time. It just so happened, as it often does, that the keen, observant and resourceful mind that made them great nurses led them to notice and fill many gaps in the American health care system. While science debated the validity of germ theory, Florence Nightingale was on the battlefield saving lives with better sanitation. While society’s “cure” for mental illness was a lock and key, Dorthea Dix was ready to offer the mentally ill proper housing, socialization, and integration into society. Linda Richards’ innovation saved potentially millions of lives during her career, all because she was handy with a file folder and a spreadsheet. When it became obvious to Mary Breckinridge that education and access could save lives, she got trained, trained others, saddled up her horse and provided access.

Nursing is a job for those powered by passion and driven to do, and you might be the next great health care innovator armed with the humble power of pragmatism. If you’re the kind of person who isn’t afraid to jump in, think hard, and work harder for the greater good, start your Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Concordia by contacting an admissions counselor today.