Year of the Nurse: Virginia Henderson

2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, and we’re celebrating all year long by highlighting individuals that made a major impact on the nursing profession.

Today, we spotlight Virginia Henderson, known by many as the “first lady of nursing.” Henderson’s accomplishments in healthcare made her one of the most important nurses of the 20th century.

Read on to learn about Virginia’s Henderson’s inspiring life and incredible contributions to the field of nursing!

Early Life & Education

Virginia Henderson was born on November 30, 1897 in Kansas City, Missouri. She was part of a large family, and was the fifth of eight children. Henderson’s father was an attorney, known for representing Native American tribes in disputes with the U.S. Government. At a young age, she moved to Virginia, where she received most of her formative education.

Henderson was an extremely well-educated healthcare professional, and spent much of her professional life in academia. In 1921, she graduated from the US Army School of Nursing in Washington, D.C. Just a few years afterward, in 1924, she became the first full-time nursing instructor in the state of Virginia, teaching at Norfolk Presbyterian Hospital until 1929.

In 1953, she became a research associate at Yale School of Nursing, earning emeritus status in 1971 and remaining on the staff until 1996. It was here that she earned a reputation as a brilliant nursing mind and developed the famous Nursing Need Theory.

Nursing Need Theory

Henderson’s Need Theory meticulously explains the functions of a nurse. One of her most famous quotes comes from the Nursing Need Theory:

“I believe that the function the nurse performs is primarily an independent one – that of acting for the patient when he lacks knowledge, physical strength, or the will to act for himself as he would ordinarily act in health, or in carrying out prescribed therapy. This function is seen as complex and creative, as offering unlimited opportunity for the application of the physical, biological, and social sciences and the development of skills based on them.” 

Need Theory, as explained by Angelo Gonzalo, BSN, RN on Nurseslabs, establishes the following:

  1. Nurses care for patients until they can care for themselves once again.
  2. Patients desire to return to health.
  3. Nurses are willing to serve and will devote themselves to the patient day and night
  4. The mind and body are “inseparable and interrelated.”

There are 14 components of Henderson’s Need Theory that call for a comprehensive and holistic approach to nursing. Patients are evaluated on their status within each category to assess progress and overall health:

Physiological Components

  1. Breathe normally
  2. Eat and drink adequately
  3. Eliminate body waste
  4. Move and maintain desirable posture
  5. Sleep and rest
  6. Select suitable clothes – dress and undress
  7. Maintain body temperature
  8. Keep the body clean and well-groomed
  9. Avoid dangers in the environment

Psychological Aspects of Communicating and Learning

  1. Communicate with others in expressing emotions, needs, fears, or opinions.
  2. Learn, discover, or satisfy the curiosity that leads to normal development and health.

Spiritual and Moral

  1. Worship according to one’s faith

Sociologically Oriented to Occupation and Recreation

  1. Work in such a way that there is sense of accomplishment
  2. Play or participate in recreation

Textbooks & Writing

Henderson is also famous for editing and revising editions of “Principles and Practices of Nursing, originally written by Bertha Harmer. Henderson co-authored later versions of the textbook, which at one point was the most widely adopted instructional text for nursing schools across the world.

Henderson’s Nursing Studies Index was published in 1963, and Professor Edward J. Halloran of the University of North Carolina states that Henderson believed “that this was her most important work – her contribution to nursing,” and describes it as “research scholarship of the highest order” (Halloran, 20).

However, perhaps her most impressive piece of research and writing was titled Nursing Research: Survey and Assessment, in which she “gathered, reviewed, catalogued, classified, annotated, and cross-referenced every known piece of research on nursing published in English” (Gonzalo, Nurseslabs).


After a long and brilliant career, Virginia Henderson passed away in 1996. Over the course of her life, she earned twelve honorary doctorate degrees, as well as the International Council of Nursing’s Christianne Reimann Prize, known as nursing’s highest honor, which recognizes outstanding achievement in the profession. In 1979, she was the first to receive the Connecticut Nurses Association’s Virginia Henderson Award for “outstanding contributions to nursing research.”

Virginia Henderson’s contributions to the field of nursing are almost beyond measure. She has been called “an artist and a scientist,” whose “written works will be viewed as the 20th century equivalent of those of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale” (Halloran, 23).

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International Journal of Caring Sciences, May-August 2015. “Integrating Nursing Theory and Process into Practice; Virginia’s Henderson Need Theory.” Pages 445-46. September 8, 2020.

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