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13 Famous Nurses Who Shaped the World of Nursing

As we celebrate nurses, let’s take a few moments to look back at the careers of famous nurses in history. These individuals each brought something new—if not downright revolutionary—to their work and, as a result, impacted the science of nursing. 

As you read this selection of influential nurse leaders, consider how your nursing career can influence all the people you interact with, whether they are fellow students, other nurses, your patients, or your community. 

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1. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)

Generally regarded as the founder of modern nursing, Nightingale was born into a well-to-do English family. In her twenties, Nightingale began her pursuit of nursing—despite objections from her mother and sister, who wanted Florence to enter the more acceptable role of wife and mother, as was the custom for women of her class. She persevered, however, saying that she felt called by God to the profession. 

In her travels, she visited a Lutheran religious community in Germany where a pastor and deaconesses (forerunners of modern nurses) worked with the sick. She received medical training at their institute and later wrote that the experience was the foundation for her advancements.

Nightingale rose to prominence during the Crimean War. She and a group of 38 volunteer nurses traveled to a military hospital in Scutari, only to find the most wretched conditions among the British soldiers. More of the wounded were dying from typhus, cholera, and dysentery than from their wounds. Nightingale instituted a radical program of sanitation and hygiene—most notably handwashing with soap and water, which was not a common practice.

Over the next forty years, Nightingale became a champion for nursing as a profession in England and internationally. She founded the first professional school of nursing, and her book, Notes on Nursing, became the foundational text for nursing students as well as for women providing care at home. Nightingale also was a pioneer in the use of statistics, using histograms (pie charts) to great effect to persuade others of the efficacy of nursing improvements on patient health.

"Every day sanitary knowledge,, or the knowledge of nursing, or in other words, of how to put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease, takes a higher place. It is recognised as the knowledge which every one ought to have – distinct from medical knowledge, which only a profession can have." —Florence Nightingale, from Notes on Nursing, 1859.

2. Mary Breckenridge (1881–1965)

Breckenridge was a pioneer in establishing nurse-midwifery and a system for providing care in rural eastern Kentucky. She became a registered nurse after attending St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing in New York City. She then worked in Washington, D.C., as a supervising nurse during the 1918 influenza epidemic. 

Having learned French at a Swiss boarding school in her youth, Breckenridge volunteered to serve in France organizing relief efforts for children and pregnant women in the devastation following World War I. In 1921, she returned to the U.S. and pursued additional education in public health to better serve the poor families of eastern Kentucky. There, she encountered informally trained midwives, but she wanted her own training in the field. Since there was no midwifery course in the United States, she went to study in England where she became certified. 

Breckenridge traveled to several established nursing stations in the rural Scottish Highlands, which inspired her to begin a similar nursing network when she returned to Kentucky in 1925. She founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which became the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1928. With other midwives from London, Breckenridge traveled the region on horseback, providing general healthcare, pre- and postnatal care, and birthing services. Using the midwifery model of care delivery, Breckenridge demonstrated that trained providers could lower infant and maternal mortality rates. By the time of her passing in 1965, the FNS—which she continued to lead—delivered more than 14,500 babies with only 11 maternal deaths.

3. Clara Barton (1821–1912)

Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Barton was a shy but academically gifted girl. Her first nursing experience came when she was a young girl: After her brother David fell from a barn roof, Barton nursed him back to health over two years, giving him medicines ordered by the doctor and applying leeches, as was the common practice.

As an adult, Barton was drawn into nursing again by the events of the Civil War. She began by tending soldiers who had been brought by train to Washington, D.C, after a riot in Baltimore. As the war progressed, she became a battlefield nurse, distributing medical supplies, applying dressings and garnering support from the public for herself and other nurses to work directly behind the front lines. She was put in charge of the army hospitals by Union General Benjamin Butler and was widely regarded as the “Florence Nightingale of America.”

After the war, Barton traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and learned of the humanitarian organization called the Red Cross. She was invited by one of the founders to start an American branch of the Red Cross, which she did after convincing then-President Chester Arthur that the group would respond not only to battlefield crises but to natural disasters like floods and earthquakes.

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4. Loretta C. Ford (1920– )

Ford is one of the most influential nurse leaders in history because of her role in co-founding, with Henry Silver, MD, the first nurse practitioner program. In the 1960s, Ford was working in the public nurse program at Colorado University, training nursing students in the Denver Visiting Nurse Service and saw that there was a decided lack of primary care for the communities they served. 

Ford realized that with some specialized instruction, nurses could deliver the care that was needed and developed a curriculum that, at the time, called on physicians to provide medical instruction to nursing students paired with their nursing instruction. The program was launched in 1965 at the University of Colorado.

The first pediatric nurse practitioners began their work in 1967. The model became so successful that the nurse practitioner role has expanded to include other populations and subspecialties.

Ford’s work has earned her a place in the Women’s Hall of Fame, and she is a recipient of the Surgeon General’s Medallion, the highest honor granted to a civilian by the U.S. Public Health Service.

5. Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926)

Although she was not the first African American woman to serve as a nurse in the U.S. (one notable predecessor was Harriet Tubman, who served as a Union Army nurse, delivering care to Black soldiers), she is hailed as the first to earn a nursing license. Opportunities for Black women who wished to pursue nursing education were extremely limited, even in her home state of Massachusetts. Nonetheless, Mahoney was admitted to a 16-month program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where she had previously worked as a cook, maid, and washerwoman. 

After an intensive program of lectures and clinical work in hospital wards and private homes, Mahoney graduated in 1879 with two other candidates—they were the only ones out of the class of 40 to complete the program.

Mahoney spent most of her professional career as a nurse in private homes, where she earned a reputation for efficiency and preparedness. She worked hard to be treated as a professional and not as a servant, and advocated for the equal treatment of all professional nurses. Even though she was one of the original members of the group that later became the American Nurses Association, she split with the group for their failure to welcome nurses of color. As a result, she and two other Black nurses founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, a group that welcomed all nurses regardless of race. 

6. Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Best known as a poet and essayist, Whitman also served as a nurse during the Civil War. Having read in the newspaper about a wounded soldier identified as “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitman,” Walt traveled south from his home in New York City, fearing his brother George was in danger. (It was not uncommon for family members to take responsibility for the care of wounded soldiers in that era.)

Whitman found his brother alive, luckily with only a superficial wound. Seeing all the wounded men during his visit to the front, however, left a deep impression. He traveled to Washington, D.C., taking up a position as a clerk in the army paymaster’s office. In his free time, Whitman volunteered in the army hospitals, tending to the sick and wounded, and writing letters home to their family members on their behalf.

Whitman immortalized his experiences as a nurse in the poem, “The Wound Dresser.”

7. Lillian Wald (1867–1940)

Wald followed up an early interest in nursing by entering the New York Hospital Training School for nurses in 1891. Her postgraduate studies brought her to the Lower East Side of New York, where she worked with the immigrant families who lived in the tenements there. She was so involved with her work that she moved into a room in the neighborhood, so she could always be close to her patient population.

Her deep involvement with the community led her to coin the term “public health nurse,” and she later became the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing. She was an early advocate for public school nurses. 

Her most enduring legacy, however, was the founding of the Henry Street Settlement, which provided not only healthcare but was supportive of women and children, and the right of all people to have quality healthcare at home, provided with respect, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.

“Nursing is love in action, and there is no finer manifestation of it than the care of the poor and disabled in their own homes.” —Lillian Wald

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8. Mary Seacole (1805–1881)

Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish lieutenant in the British Army, and a free Black “doctress” who used good hygiene and Caribbean and African herbal medicine to treat members of the community in Kingston, Colony of Jamaica. Seacole learned her mother’s medical traditions, as well as European medical treatments from the military doctors who stayed in her mother’s boarding house.

The boarding house was often a makeshift hospital for British Army and Navy staff who were affected by such tropical diseases as cholera and yellow fever. Seacole often applied such measures as hygiene, rest, ventilation, hydration, empathy, and good nutrition to care for sick patients.

Upon hearing of the wounded and dying British troops in the Crimean War, Seacole volunteered her nursing services to several military and private organizations but was turned down. Undeterred, she and a business partner journeyed to the area and built a small hotel, where she served food and beverages to officers, and nursed hundreds of wounded troops who were being transported back to England.

Her service has been well remembered in her native Jamaica and has become better recognized in Britain over the last twenty years. In 2004, Seacole ranked No. 1 in an online poll of 100 Great Black Britons.

9. Virginia Avenel Henderson (1897–1996)

Henderson would become known as the “First Lady of Nursing” for her development of a theory of nursing that became fundamental to nursing education. As she stated

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.”

She undertook the revision of a nursing text—Textbook of the Principles and Practices of Nursing—and the resulting work became a core text in hospital nursing schools across America. In addition, she oversaw the compilation of a four-volume reference guide to nursing research papers published between 1900 and 1960, called the Nursing Studies Index.

For her pioneering work as a nurse educator, public health nurse, researcher and theorist, Henderson was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame and awarded the Christiane Reimann Prize by the International Council of Nurses.

10. Dorothea Dix (1802–1887)

While not formally trained as a nurse, Dorothea Dix profoundly affected the care for poor and mentally ill individuals in the United States and beyond. Like so many others on this list, she extended boundaries, first as an educator of young girls who were not welcome in the public schools at the time, then later as an advocate.

She traveled throughout the United States and Europe, exposing the inhumane conditions under which poor mentally ill prisoners and members of the community were housed. She worked tirelessly for many years to raise awareness and to urge for legislative reform. Her reforms both stateside and in Europe led to the creation of government-funded mental hospitals. In all, Dix was responsible for founding 32 mental hospitals across 15 states and was instrumental in establishing two more in Japan.

11. Mary O’Neill Mundinger (1937— )

Mundinger is an outstanding nurse educator who has spent nearly 50 years at the Columbia University School of Nursing, advancing from assistant professor to Dean Emerita of the school. 

Mundinger made a key advancement by establishing the first Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree in the country—the first clinical doctorate in nursing. She has been a tireless advocate for nurses and nurse practitioners, having written several papers on the benefit of NPs as cost-effective providers of primary care services.

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Nursing Icons at Baylor University 

12. Dr. Jessica Peck 

Jessica L. Peck, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, FAANP, is a clinical professor at Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing. She is an expert in her field and brings world-class leadership to Baylor’s DNP program. 

A profound thought and advocacy leader, Dr. Peck states,“Nursing is the most innovative, resilient, caring, and tenacious profession that has ever existed. Nursing will always find a way to rise up and meet the challenges of tomorrow.” 

Dr. Peck holds active national credentials as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Educator, and Clinical Nurse Leader. She is highly accomplished in the nursing field and has served in elected leadership positions for various professional organizations, including:

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners
  • Texas Nurse Practitioners
  • National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP)

As the current NAPNAP President, Dr. Peck has led an organization of 9,000 nurse practitioners during the global pandemic–the largest health crisis of the 21st century–while continuing to make child health equity a priority. She created the TeamPeds Talks podcast, which provides continuing education credit for nurses and uplifting stories for all.

In addition to providing innovative, visionary, and award-winning leadership, Dr. Peck also serves as a member of the NAPNAP’s Health Policy Committee and acted as President of NAPNAP Partners for Vulnerable Youth.

Recognized and published as a national human trafficking expert, Dr. Peck has demonstrated continuous and exemplary contributions to the nursing profession. She served as founding chair of the Alliance for Children in Trafficking (ACT), a national campaign of NAPNAP Partners for Vulnerable Youth, to train healthcare professionals to respond to human tracking in their communities.

Through ACT, Dr. Peck has provided expert consultation to the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. In partnership with the Office of Trafficking in Persons, Dr. Peck is working to create a set of core competencies for healthcare professionals caring for trafficked individuals. She is the lead medical consultant for Unbound Houston and has helped create statewide continuing education, successfully passing legislation (House Bill 2059) that requires all direct care providers in Texas to take continuing education on trafficking.

Dr. Peck also maintains an active membership with many reputable organizations, some of which include:

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners
  • National League for Nursing
  • Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society
  • Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nurses

In 2020, Dr. Peck was honored as the recipient of the “Distinguished Alumni Award” by the Capstone College of Nursing (CCN). In 2019, Dr. Peck received the “Texas Nurse Practitioner of the Year” award while also being inducted as a fellow of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and the American Academy of Nursing.

Dr. Peck actively contributes to publications and associations. She has presented at the state, regional, national, and international levels on pediatric healthcare, advanced practice nursing, and human trafficking.

As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Dr. Peck is continuously engaged in community events, speaking to groups, and teaching parenting classes. She is interested in holistically educating and equipping families to promote positive physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health. She is currently contracted with W Publishing to write a book entitled Behind Closed Doors: A Guide to Help Parents and Teens Navigate Through Life’s Toughest Issues, scheduled for a national release on October 18, 2022. 

For a list of Dr. Peck’s publications, click here

13. Dr. Lori Spies

Dr. Spies was invited to be the Missions Missions Coordinator for the LHSON after launching the first international month-long clinical immersion for NP students to Uganda in 2005. Through her intentional efforts to develop global partnerships, the number of students, staff, and faculty at LHSON who participate in global endeavors has increased exponentially. She currently facilitates a variety of domestic and international endeavors for students, staff, and faculty to enhance overall LHSON global engagement through mission, teaching, and scholarship. 

Dr. Spies has developed study abroad courses for graduate and undergraduate nursing students in Hong Kong and Vietnam and an interdisciplinary global health course in Rwanda and Zambia. 

She has developed innovative initiatives in Dallas, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, Peru, The Gambia, The Rio Grande Valley, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zambia. Committed to cultivating opportunities for all, Dr. Spies strives to create paths to ensure that all who are interested may participate in global outreach. 

Dr. Spies is active in advanced practice and interdisciplinary global health organizations. As the chair of the practice committee for the International Council Nurses Advanced Practice Nursing Network, Dr. Spies offers a wealth of expertise. She is also a past president of the North Texas Nurse Practitioners and a co-founder of the North Texas African Health Initiative

Since 2007, Dr. Spies has collaborated with Ugandan nurse leaders to build leadership skills and research capacity and in2012 received a commendation from the Uganda Nursing and Midwife Association. She has led faculty and nurse development workshops in several countries, including Ethiopia, India, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zambia.

Dr. Spies has a research focus on building capacity for healthcare providers to address priority population health issues. 

Current research efforts include nurse-led behavior change interventions to improve hypertension outcomes in Uganda and a review of globally implemented family interventions to support lifestyle modification in persons with cardiometabolic diseases. In response to the pandemic, Dr. Spies is collaborating on a global scale with other researchers from the International Council of Nurses to explore the experiences of Nurse Practitioners as front-line care providers during COVID-19. 

Dr. Spies was honored with the Fullbright Global US Scholar Award in 2017–2019 and to be inducted as a Fellow in the American Association of Nurse Practitioners in 2021. To read more about Dr. Spies' research and publications, click here.

Make a Difference with a DNP

If you are interested in advancing your nursing career, consider entering the online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Baylor University’s Louise Herrington School of Nursing. At the highest level of nursing practice, DNP-prepared nurses are prepared to serve as leaders who can positively impact patient outcomes, healthcare policy and the health of the community.

Ranked #1 in the Top 5 Best Texas DNP Programs and landing in the top 10% for Best Nursing Schools: Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2022 by U.S. News and World Report, Baylor’s DNP program blends academic rigor with the convenience of remote learning.

DNP students learn from world-class faculty who are experts in their field, while benefiting from personalized support from a student success coach throughout the program. A dedicated clinical placement team is also available to online nursing students with free clinical placement support.

Learn more about how Baylor’s online DNP in one of six distinct tracks will help you reach your goals as a nurse leader and pave the way in healthcare. 

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