Famous Nurses Throughout History

When it comes to inspirational figures, nursing has no shortage. Everyone has heard of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton and admired their courage and intelligence. What these women did for the future of medicine is amazing and so are their stories. Two other nurses, Helen Fairchild and Margaret Sanger, are also worthy of recognition.

Helen Fairchild

One of the lesser known figures in nursing history is Helen Fairchild. As a nurse in the First World War, Fairchild was determined to make a difference to the injured. She entered the battlefield in 1917, but unfortunately, her story does not end as well as it starts.

As one of the sixty-four nurses from Pennsylvania Hospital Unit ten, she volunteered to be in the American Expeditionary Force and help those solider that had fallen. Spending much of her time in a Casualty Clearing Station in Ypres-Passchendaele, Fairchild was one of the nurses expected to cover an area comparable to the base hospital’s two thousand beds that inhabited the small area. This was a daunting challenge, to say the least.

From her letters, we learn that Fairchild would stand in mud in order to treat patients and that the pace was frenetic. The base hospitals could offer a measure of backup and rest time, while the casualty clearing stations were expected to treat patients quickly and then send them to a main hospital or back into the field. Fourteen hour days were not uncommon.

The cause of Fairchild’s death is undetermined, but it would seem that it may have been caused by either the chloroform that was used in the operation rooms or possibly from a mustard gas bombing. She would never make it home to share the stories that she only alluded to in her letters.

Margaret Sanger

Born in 1879, Margaret Sanger was a nurse with a much different story. Initially a nurse for the underprivileged in New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger began to realize the dramatic effects of unplanned pregnancies in these destitute conditions. She left her nursing work in order to promote the use of birth control and give women everywhere the ability to make their own reproductive decisions.

Though battled from the beginning, her work finally paid off with the formation of the World Population Conference in 1927 in which the effects of overpopulating were discussed with experts from around the globe. Sanger would later form the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1942, which still stands today to educate women about their reproductive health and choices for family planning.

Florence Nightingale

Of all nurses throughout history, no one has earned more fame than Florence Nightingale. Born in Italy in 1820, Nightingale came from a modest background and was home-schooled by her father, a Cambridge professor. She attended Kaiserwerth for her nursing training, responding to a cause that she felt compelled to follow since she was seventeen.

Nightingale was further inspired to neglect the social convention of marriage when she met the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. With her father’s blessing, she completed her nursing training and was taken on by the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses and was later made the lady superintendent at a London hospital for invalid women.

Because of Russia’s invading of Turkey, France and Britain decided to intervene and offer their support. Known as the Crimean War, this 1853 decision would prove to be a time where nursing was an absolute necessity in order to keep the soldiers ready for battle. British soldiers were suffering from malaria and cholera within weeks of entering the battlefield.

Upon hearing of this epidemic, Nightingale offered her services to the army as well as bringing along over thirty additional nurses. When they arrived in Scutari, it became apparent why the soldiers were dying or becoming infected so rapidly. The conditions were putrid and the rates of infection sky high. It was common to have soldiers die of infections before dying of actual war wounds.

Nightingale resisted the opposition to changing the military standards of care and forged ahead to improve the sanitation of the hospital wards. Returning in 1856 to England, Nightingale was a new hero for the country, but her work was not done yet. After seeing the horrid conditions for the soldiers, she pressed for increased training of nurses and doctors. These actions eventually led to the formation of the Army Medical College and the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses. She would also publish two books on her opinions of the current state of nursing.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton is best known for organizing the American Red Cross organization. Born in 1821, Barton was the ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ during the Civil War in the United States. Though she used to be a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, Barton organized a supply line for the soldiers on the battlefield. She would also head to the battles herself, tending to wounded and dying soldiers.

President Lincoln named her to look for missing soldiers that were captured by enemy and these records helped many families identify those that died in the Andersonville Prison. In 1870, Barton helped the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War, eventually leading to the formation of the American Red Cross in the United States.

Though there are many more nurses that could be considered heroes, these are certainly a fine sampling of women who have really made a difference to those in need.

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