Iconic Moments in Nursing History

As Nurses Week approaches, let’s kick it off early with a celebration of nursing throughout time 

National Nurses Week is celebrated every year beginning on May 6th, National Nurses Day, and ending on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. This is the time to celebrate the Nurses that heal us every day, put our needs first, and collectively fight for humanity daily. Nurses have championed iconic moments in time throughout history, but the profession was not always respected.  

In the 1800s, most “nursing” was executed by family members on sick loved ones at home. There was no schooling, certifications, or training to establish the profession and advance the field of nursing. All of this changed and set nursing forward on a successful path, and now we live in a world where nurses are a critical and essential piece of the healthcare system.  

Let’s take a look through moments in time that have brought nursing to where it is today.  

1860 

Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, established the very first collegiate nursing school in 1860. The school opened its doors in London, creating an image of nursing as a profession for the first time in history.  

 Leading up to the school’s opening, Nightingale published the first-ever instruction manual titled “Notes on Nursing”. The manual was full of training tips based on her time running an army field hospital during the Crimean War. She became known as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ because she put her patients first, often patrolling the hospital at all hours of the night, but the biggest takeaway Nightingale used to propel nursing forward was the need to enhance ventilation and sanitation in hospitals.   

 Nightingale incorporated her experience in the school and it was a major success. It inspired more of its kind, with a nursing school opening in New York City, Connecticut, and Boston in the years following. Nightingale’s original school is still around today and is known as The Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.  

 

1879 

Mary Eliza Mahoney, a child of freed slaves, was the first African American licensed nurse and began working in 1879 at the age of 34, a dream she had since she was a teenager. Mahoney started working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children as a janitor in her teenage years, hoping to one day become a nurse. She spent 15 years at the hospital, working as a cook, washerwoman, and eventually a nurse’s aide.  

Once accepted into nursing school for this experience, Mahoney was one of four students to graduate among a class of 42. This fact alone is exceptional, but what makes it astonishing is that Mahoney did all of this as an African American woman in a time when discrimination was overwhelming.  

Due to discrimination, Mahoney spent the next 40 years working as a private nurse, advocating for equal rights, women’s rights, and the rights of children, pioneering a path for minorities in the nursing field.  

1947 

By this time, the American Nurses Association has been established for more than 35 years and is fighting to continuously improve working environments for registered nurses, but nurses still did not have equality in the field.  

 Florence Blanchfield was a nurse during both World War I and II and began leading efforts for nurses serving in the military to earn full rank and payment, due to the lack of equality she experienced as a nurse serving in the military.  

At the time Blanchfield served in the military, women were not treated equally when it came to recognition and pay. In fact, women were discharged immediately if they chose to marry. By 1947, Blanchfield’s efforts were validated and nurses were granted full rank and equal pay under the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947.  

1983 

Cliff Morrison began working as a nurse at the San Francisco General Hospital in 1979. Within two years, the AIDS epidemic broke out and the hospital had five ICUs filled with AIDS patients, at a time when there was little to no research on the disease. Everyone suffered not only because of the physical and mental effects of the disease but also because of the stigma. 

Morrison took care of his roommate at the time, who he believed had AIDS, and used this experience to pioneer the patient care that HIV and AIDS patients deserved. Morrison spent time interviewing patients and gathering information on how nurses could best support and care for the terminally ill.  

From Morrison’s research and first-hand experience, Ward 5B was born in July 1983 and was the only unit in the United States dedicated solely to the care of HIV/AIDS patients. It revolutionized the way AIDS patients were treated, placing care and physical touch at the heart of it all.  

The nurses of Ward 5B touched their patients without gloves or any protective gear to remove the feeling of ostracization, something a lot of healthcare professionals were too afraid to do at the time.  

2020  

The year of the nurse. The world began to face the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and nurses around the globe stepped up to fight.  Everything changed quickly, and many answers were unknown, but that did not prevent nurses from putting their patients first.  

Nurses had to shift from floor to floor to prioritize the COVID units and safe care, many working far more hours than they ever had before. Not only was the work dangerous and exhausting, but it was also mentally difficult.  

Afomia Bekel from Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston summed up the feeling of thousand of nurses when she said, “The unknown was frightening, but the urgency the pandemic placed on health care workers all over the world didn’t allow us to sit in that fear or uncertainty for too long.”  

Although nurses still face COVID-19 challenges, their work at the height of the pandemic, as well as its ups and downs, have collectively brought the world to a safer standing within the pandemic.  

Thank you, Nurses!  

Nurses come from a history of heroism, acting on the front lines through iconic moments in humanity’s history. From fighting for recognition and equality in the field to stepping up in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Nurses deserve the recognition as healthcare professionals they have long awaited. 

The role of the nurse has evolved over time, but some things never change. The profession has been voted first among the professions the public trusts the most multiple times, rightfully so.  

Celebrate this Nurses Week by thanking a nurse in your life that has put your care above all else when you needed it most. It is the care they give patients that heals the world.  

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