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From the battlefields of World War II to today’s hospitals and healthcare organizations, nurses have always been at the frontline of patient care. Many nurses throughout history have significantly impacted the lives of their patients and the medical field as a whole, making innovative contributions to patient care and advancing public health initiatives. From Florence Nightingale – recognized as the founder of modern nursing – to Mary Eliza Mahoney – the first African American professional nurse – there are countless stories of courageous and inspiring nurses that continue to influence nursing practice today. In honor of their hard work and dedication, here are 26 nurses who dedicated their lives to ensure that others receive quality healthcare.

1. Adah Belle Thoms

Adah Belle Thoms cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and worked as the Director of the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York. She fought for the right of African American nurses to serve in the American Red Cross during World War I. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

2. Anna Caroline Maxwell

Anna Caroline Maxwell earned the title of American Florence Nightingale for her efforts to advance professional nursing in the United States. Maxwell was one of the most prolific nursing pioneers. She was hired in 1880 to run a nurse’s training school at Montreal General Hospital. In 1881, she became the superintendent of the Training School for Nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital. Throughout her career, she headed up major nursing schools at Presbyterian Hospital and Columbian University. She was also critical in forming the United States Army Nurses Corp in 1901.

3. Barbara Lumpkin

Barbara Lumpkin earned her place in history as a lobbyist for the Florida Nurses Association. She was instrumental in creating the Florida Nurses Political Action Committee. For over 20 years, she strove to improve working conditions and solve advanced practice issues. In 2016, the Barbara Lumpkin Prescribing Act was passed to honor her efforts.

4. Bernadine Lacey

Bernadine Lacey was known for her efforts as a nursing educator and advocate. She worked for healthcare reform serving on President Clinton’s task force. In 1990, she was selected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and named a Living Legend by the organization.

5. Beverly Malone

As the head of the National League for Nursing (NLN), Dr. Beverly Malone worked tirelessly to advance the science of nursing education opportunities. Under President Bill Clinton, Malone was the general secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, she served as the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, the largest nurse’s union in the U.K.

6. Clara Barton

Clara Barton was the visionary leader who founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She served as a nurse during the American Civil War and earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

7. Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix was the Superintendent of Army Nurses during the American Civil War and advocated for mental healthcare for soldiers. After the war ended, she worked to raise funds for a war memorial in Virginia and was instrumental in building the New Jersey State Hospital.

8. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Eddie Bernice Johnson served Texas’s 30th congressional district as a member of the House of Representatives, becoming the first registered nurse elected to Congress. She began her political career as an underdog candidate running for a seat in the Texas House. In 1977, Jimmy Carter appointed her as the Regional Director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, making her the first African American nurse given this honor.

9. Elizabeth Grace Neill

Elizabeth Grace Neill was a social reformer in Scotland and New Zealand at the turn of the century. She lobbied for passing laws that required nurse and midwife training. New Zealand was the first country to have these laws. Neill felt women were more comfortable talking about maternity with another woman.

10. Ernest J. Grant

Ernest Grant served as the 36th President of the American Nurses Association,  the first male nurse to hold the position. In 2022, he was named one of Modern Healthcare’s 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives. He played a significant role in advocating for nurse safety during the COVID pandemic.

11. Estelle Massey Osborne

Estelle Massey Osborne was known as a trailblazer in nursing. She spent her career working to erase racial lines in the field. She held many prominent positions during her career, including being the first black elected official on the American Nurses Association Board of Directors. She was appointed a consultant position to the National Nursing Council for War Service in 1943.

12. Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is known as the founder of modern nursing and possibly the most famous of historical nursing figures. She was a social reformer who laid the global foundation for professional nursing roles. She established the St. Thomas Hospital nursing school in 1860, the first school of its type in the world.

13. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is a well-known abolitionist and activist. She worked as part of the Underground Railroad to free enslaved people in the south. At the beginning of the Civil War, she also worked as a nurse for the Union Army.

14. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was a nurse in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years. In 1979, she became the first black general and the first of such to head the Army Corps of nurses. Johnson-Brown also was the Director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing during her career. According to her obituary, she rose through the ranks in the Army due to her unique operating room skills.

15. Isabella Baumfree

Isabella Baumfree was a nurse and an abolitionist known as Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom in 1826. She was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man who kidnapped her son into slavery. Then, in 1851, she gave her acclaimed speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” demanding rights be given to both women and African Americans.

16. Kofoworola Abeni Pratt

Kofoworola Abeni Pratt was the first black nurse in the National Health Service (NHS). Born in Nigeria, she trained at the Nightingale School based in St. Thomas’ Hospital London. In 1955, Pratt returned to her home country to become its first ward sister. Later, she rose through the ranks to Matron at the top hospital in Nigeria. Known for her efforts to reform healthcare in the country, she was named Chief of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and given the Florence Nightingale Medal.

17. Luther Christman

Luther Christman was an icon in the nursing industry with a career that spanned 65 years. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, he experienced discrimination throughout many of his years as a nurse. At the time, the role was filled mainly by women. For example, he was denied entry into the Army Nurse Corps in World War II because of his gender. Despite that, he championed professional nurse training and founded the Rush University College of Nursing. He also pioneered science-based models that allow nurses to obtain bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

18. Mabel Keaton Staupers

Mabel Keaton Staupers significantly changed the U.S. Army’s policy of excluding black women from being nurses in World War II. She also spearheaded organizations dedicated to providing healthcare services to impoverished black people. She organized a tuberculosis clinic in Booker T. Washington Sanatorium and was its first superintendent. Later, she served as the Executive Director of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and the executive secretary for the Harlem Tuberculosis Committee.

19. Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was instrumental in legalizing birth control and making it available to women. Sanger had watched her mother waste away after giving birth eleven times and having seven miscarriages. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Sanger was 19, and it inspired her to attend nursing school in the Catskills. As a nurse, she served many immigrant women living in poverty. They would resort to back-alley abortions because they could not access birth control – a term Sanger coined in 1914. In 1915, she was indicted for sending diaphragms to women and a year later arrested for opening a birth control clinic. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, a precursor to Planned Parenthood.

20. Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge was a pioneer of nurse-midwifery services in rural communities. She was responsible for the first comprehensive healthcare system in the U.S., which primarily offered midwifery services. She spent three years in France as a member of the American Committee for Devastated France, where she organized a program for children and pregnant women and was awarded the Medaille Reconnaissance Française. When she returned to the United States, she worked in rural Kentucky and eventually went back to school to study midwifery.

21. Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American licensed nurse. Born in 1845, she worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She started as a janitor and eventually worked her way up to nurse’s aide. At the age of 33, she was accepted into the hospital’s nursing school, one of the first in the country. After years as a private nurse, she became the Director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children. After the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, she was one of the first women to register to vote.

22. Mary Elizabeth Carnegie

Mary Elizabeth Carnegie was a renowned minority nurse advocate. She impacted social welfare globally during her career and pressed for equality in nursing education and scholarship. She initiated a baccalaureate nursing program at Hampton University, the first of its kind in Virginia, helping pave the way for black women to have careers in nursing.

23. Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole is known as a hero of the Crimean War. She is responsible for setting up the British Hotel behind the lines. It served as a place of healing for wounded soldiers in need of nursing care. As a result, she was able to nurse many of them back to health. She did all this despite being denied access to the nursing contingent by the War Office. So instead, she traveled independently and set up the hotel.

24. Peggy Anderson

Peggy Anderson was a journalist who raised awareness about the struggles nurses face. Perhaps inspired by her mother, Catherine Anderson, who was a nurse, she went on to write a bestselling book entitled Nurses. It explored a nurse’s working life and was based on interviews with a Philadelphia-based nurse. The book was later made into a movie and television series.

25. Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor was the first black nurse during the American Civil War. She treated the soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Later, she published a book about life working as a nurse in the camp. In 1866, she played a significant role in organizing the Women’s Relief Corps.

26. Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is best known as an American poet and essayist, but he also worked as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals. He would later write about his experience in The Great Army of the Sick, an article published in The New York Times. He also wrote about it in a book titled Memoranda During the War.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of these historic nurses, consider the nursing programs available at the American Sentinel College of Nursing & Health Sciences at Post University. Our flexible programs are perfect for working professionals interested in advancing their healthcare careers.

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Please note jobs and/or career outcomes highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs or career outcomes expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s program and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions advisor.