Influential Nurses: 14 Inspiring Nurses Who Changed History

Professional nursing began in the nineteenth century (1800’s). The modern, autonomous nurses of today owe their current practice standards to the trailblazers of the past. Nursing evolved from individual people trying to do their best for patients with little training to a highly-educated, well-trained, and respected group of medical professionals. Listed below are 14 influential nurses who helped to change the world of nursing and medicine for the better.

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

Florence Nightingale c. 1860. {{PD-US}}.
Florence Nightingale makes almost every list of influential nurses for good reason. She was one of the first nurses to conduct nursing research and was one of the first modern epidemiologists. She brought about major reforms in medical hygiene and sanitation at a time when unsanitary practices were claiming many patient’s lives. Nightingale was one of the first nurses to formalize nursing knowledge and education when she established the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1860. She became one of the first nurse authors with her book Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it Is Not. Nightingale adopted a holistic view that recognized the importance of hygiene, mental stimulation, and socialization on the maintenance of health.

Florence Nightingale is recognized as being the “founder of modern nursing.”

Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton (1821 – 1912)

Clara Barton c. 1866. {{PD-US}}.
Clara Barton was a nurse who served during the Civil War. She was not formally trained as a nurse. Despite her lack of training, she provided nursing care and comfort to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Barton gathered medical supplies and other necessities for soldiers. Her efforts drew the attention and admiration of Union Surgeons and several politicians – including the President of the United States! Barton used her position to gain the political support needed for the formation of the American Association of the Red Cross. Congress officially ratified the American Red Cross in 1882. Barton served as the organization’s first leader. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973.

Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross.

Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802 – 1887)

Dorothea Dix – date unknown. {{PD-US}}.
Dorothea Dix was a teacher who worked as a nurse recruiter during the Civil War. She became one of the first modern patient advocates. She campaigned for the humane treatment of the poor, mentally ill, and convicted prisoners. Dix documented the conditions and inhumane practices faced by inmates at the existing unregulated mental institutions. Her unflinching report of the abuse suffered by these vulnerable populations sparked public condemnation for these practices and garnered support for her cause. This support allowed her to successfully lobby politicians into the creation of new regulated state mental health institutions with a focus on more compassionate and humane care. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979.

Dorothea Dix was a patient advocate who improved mental health care.

Susie King Taylor (1848 – 1912)

Susie King Taylor c. 1902. {{PD-US}}.
Susie King Taylor was born into slavery and secretly educated at a time when it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. After escaping to freedom, Susie served with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment. This was the first Black regiment in the U.S. Army. She provided both nursing care and general education to the soldiers. She is the first Black army nurse despite her being officially enrolled and listed as a laundress. Taylor wrote Reminiscences of My Life in Camp about her experiences as a Civil War nurse, the treatment of Civil War Veterans, and racism in the South after Reconstruction. It is remarkable for being the only book written by a woman of color about her experiences during the Civil War.

Susie King Taylor was a nurse, author, and educator who worked to overcome adversity.

Linda Richards (1841 – 1930)

Linda Richards c. 1907. {{PD-US}}.
Linda Richards was the first nursing graduate in the United States. She graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s nurse training program in 1873. Richards demonstrated to hospitals and medical staff the value that a trained nurse could provide. She began to separate patient records into individual patient health records – a practice that continues to this day. Richards helped to set up nurse training schools both in the United States and Japan. She wrote of her experiences in her autobiography Reminiscences of Linda Richards: America’s First Trained Nurse. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Linda Richards was the first trained nursing graduate in the United States.

Lillian Wald (1867 – 1940)

Lillian Wald – date unknown. {{PD-US}}.
Lillian Wald was a graduate of the New York Hospital School of Nursing. She moved into tenement housing in the Lower East Side intent to provide services to the mostly poor and immigrant community. This community health project would eventually become known as the Henry Street Nurses’ Settlement. Wald gained the support of numerous wealthy philanthropists during the Great Depression. This financial support helped the nurses of the settlement to provide their patients with meals, education, and medical care. The public health nurses at the Henry Street Settlement were some of the first nurses in the United States to practice with autonomy. Wald was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Lillian Wald started the trend toward public health nursing.

Isabel Hampton Robb (1859 – 1910)

Isabel Robb – date unknown. {{PD-US}}.
Isabel Robb was a teacher before graduating as a nurse from the Bellevue Training School for Nurses in 1883. Her early interest in teaching stayed with her throughout her lifetime. She became the first Superintendent of Nurses at John Hopkins and the principal of their nurse training school in 1889. She wrote the book on nursing ethics and standard practice with Nursing: Its Principles and Practice. Robb helped to form the National League for Nursing (NIL) and was a founding member of the organization that would become the American Nurses Association (ANA). She served as the first president of the American Nurses Association.

Isabel Hampton Robb laid the foundation for standardized nursing education and practice.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 – 1926)

Mary Mahoney – date unknown. {{PD-US}}.
Mary Mahoney was born the daughter of freed slaves. She became the first Black nurse in 1879 after graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s nurse training school. She pursued a career in private nursing due to the discrimination she faced. Despite practicing privately, she was active in the professional organizations of her time. She was a strong advocate for equality in nursing representation and career opportunities. She became one of the first Black members of the American Nurses Association (ANA). Mahoney became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. This organization later merged with the ANA in 1949. Mahoney was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Mary Mahoney was the first Black licensed nurse and an advocate for diversity in nursing.

Mary Adelaide Nutting (1858 – 1948)

Mary Nutting c. 1906. {{PD-US}}.
Mary Nutting graduated from the first class of the John Hopkins School of Nursing in 1891. She assumed a position at the school and eventually succeeded Isabel Robb as Superintendent of Nurses at John Hopkins Hospital. She created formalized standards for nursing education at the school and incorporated field experience into the curriculum. After helping to develop Columbia University’s School of Nursing, she accepted a position as a professor of nursing in 1907 – making her the first female professor of nursing at any university. Nutting’s support was instrumental in the establishment of the Nurse Army Corps in 1901. She helped to mobilize the public war effort and the recruitment of nurses during World War I.

Mary Adelaide Nutting was the first female nursing professor in the university setting.

Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879 – 1966)

Margaret Sanger – date unknown. {{PD-US}}.
Margaret Sanger is a controversial nursing figure. She championed women’s reproductive rights and founded the birth control movement. Sanger educated women on their reproductive health at a time when the public discussion on women’s health topics was censored. Even though she faced prosecution for disseminating “obscene” material, she released the book Family Limitation on the methods of birth control illegally available at the time. Her work led to the formation of the organization that would later become Planned Parenthood. Her activism helped to push for the legalization of contraceptives in 1936 and to the development of the first FDA approved oral contraceptive in 1960. Sanger was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1981.

Margaret Sanger is best known for advancing women’s sexual health and reproductive rights.

Mary Carson Breckinridge (1881 – 1965)

Mary Breckinridge – date unknown.
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Mary Breckinridge graduated in 1910 from St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing. She suffered personal tragedy with the death of her two children in their early childhood. Breckinridge devoted herself to maternal and children’s healthcare by studying public health nursing at Columbia University and midwifery at British institutions. She established the Frontier Nursing Service in rural Leslie County, Kentucky, in 1925. This program introduced trained nurse midwives into the area. Their expertise decreased maternal and neonatal deaths below the national average. She helped to found the American Association of Nurse-Midwives in 1929. Breckinridge was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995.

Mary Breckinridge introduced a rural health model that advanced nurse mid-wifery and reduced the mortality rates of mothers and infants.

Rachel Louise McManus (1896 – 1993)

Louise McManus – date unknown.
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Louise McManus was a nurse educator who worked with nursing organizations and state legislators to introduce standardized testing for nursing licensure in order to ensure a minimum standard of safe, quality nursing care. This standardized testing would eventually become known as the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). McManus was a strong patient advocate who developed the “Patient Bill of Rights” that informs patients of their rights within the healthcare system. This document became a standard adopted by the Joint Commission of the Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO). McManus was the first nurse to earn a doctoral degree in Nursing. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Louise McManus helped to standardize nursing education and licensure and advocated for patient safety.

Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890 – 1989)

Mabel Staupers – date unknown.
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Mabel Staupers was a Barbados immigrant who graduated from the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1917. She helped to found the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium in Harlem in 1920. This hospital became one of the few private healthcare facilities at the time that allowed Black physicians to treat their patients. Staupers helped to integrate the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses into the American Nurses Association in 1948. She campaigned to integrate Black nurses in the United States Nursing Corps during World War II with full integration occurring in 1945. Her memoir No Time for Prejudice details her advocacy for the integration of nursing. She was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1951 for work toward racial equality in nursing.

Mabel Keaton Staupers was a nurse advocate who helped to integrate the U.S. Nurse Corps and the American Nurses Association.

Luther Christman (1915–2011)

Luther Christman c. 1980.
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Luther Christman graduated from the Pennsylvania Hospital of Nursing for Men in 1939. He faced discrimination for being a man in a female-dominated career. He was denied clinical experience, entry into the U.S. Nurse Corps, and acceptance to two University Nursing Programs because he was a man. Despite this, Christman became the founder and Dean of the Rush University College of Nursing – making him the first male dean of a school of nursing. He developed the “Rush Model for Nursing” that started the practitioner-teacher role and evidenced-based academic education. Christman helped to found the organization that would later become known as the American Assembly of Men in Nursing in 1974.

Luther Christman was a pioneer for male nurses who advocated for diversity in nursing and standards in education.

  • Rush University: Luther Christman
  • Remembering a Nursing Icon: Luther Christman