by Eric Hebert
For much of history, the nursing profession did not receive a lot of credit. Public perception of the profession was not a great one, and most nurses came from the lower class and was not really seen as a legitimate career. That started to change during the 19th century as many of the nurses mentioned here rose to the occasion to help tend to the sick or wounded and build the foundation that modern nursing sits upon today. Without these brave nurses, who knows how far the profession could have advanced. Let's take a look at some of the more famous nurses that lent a helping hand.
One of the most famous nurses in history, Clara Barton's claim to fame would ultimately be the creation of the American Red Cross in 1881. However, it was the twenty years that led up to that moment which demonstrated the full contribution that Clara Barton made to the nursing profession. It was 1861, the year the United States' bloody Civil War broke out as the Northern states battled against their southern brothers. Barton was working in Washington D.C. at the time the Battle of Bull Run, the first major conflict of the war, broke out near there. After the battle, Barton organized a way for Northern states to donate and distribute medical supplies and goods. After a year of lobbying, she would be given the task of traveling with military ambulances by Surgeon General William Hammond to tend to wounded soldiers of the North as well as behind the enemy lines of the south. Barton would continue to assist and care throughout the duration of the war, including much of the Virginia campaign at such battles as the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond, and the bloody battle of Fredericksburg. In the final stages of the war Barton was put in charge of searching for and identification of missing Union soldiers by president Abraham Lincoln. She would continue this work until visiting Europe in 1870, where she witnesses the work of the International Red Cross. Upon her return to the US a few years later, she would take this experience and use it to set up her own organization to assist those in need should another national crisis ever arise.
Another famous nurse known throughout the entire world, Florence Nightingale would be responsible for basically founding what we refer to as the nursing profession. Nightingale's foray into nursing came in the form of a "divine calling" in her teenage years. As a woman who came from a highly esteemed and well-off British family, this was a surprise career choice to many, including Nightingale's parents. Traditionally, someone of her status would be groomed to be a wife and mother, and definitely would not take a job as a nurse, which was seen as a beggar's profession. Nonetheless, Nightingale's father granter her permission in 1851 to study nursing abroad in Germany. Two years later, the Crimean War broke out between Russia and Germany, and Nightingale was sent to the army hospital in Scutari to care for them. When she arrived, she found the conditions of the hospital to be the main cause for so many soldiers dying, and soon became an advocate for cleaning up hospitals. It was during this time that Nightingales mathematical and statistical talents shined as she showed the world new ways on analyzing medical data. Her work here would continue after her return to Britain in 1857. Now a national hero, Nightingale would be invited to meet with Queen Victoria to discuss her ideas in what would end up forming the Army Medical College. The rest of Nightingale's days would involve writing books and manuals for the public and curriculum for medical schools which would shape our modern nursing profession.
Many don't realize the very short period of time in our history we as a society have been allowed to participate in using birth control. Many are also unaware that we contribute the advocacy and use of birth control to famed nurse Margaret Sanger. Her crusade to legitimize birth control and give women the right to choose was one that showed much opposition from not only the government but also the Catholic Church. But no one understood the importance of birth control more than Sanger. She was the sixth of eleven children, whose mother died while she was young and whose death was attributed to her many pregnancies. Sanger started her career working in the poor ghettos of New York City, seeing first hand the atrocities that came with complicated pregnancies and self-abortions. As a nurse, she realized the only way to combat these problems was to target the source of the problem: child birth. This would begin her crusade to educate the poor working class about birth control, in addition to several writings which discussed elements of growth for young women. Throughout her career she would be resisted by those who thought her teachings were lewd or pornographic, as in the early twentieth century it was not customary to discuss sexual relations in public. The Catholic Church also showed much opposition as her teachings went against the churches, but back down over time as they decided to focus on teaching abstinence to their followers as a means to control birth. Sanger would spent her later years spreading her message to the more elite in order to convince them of the needs of birth control and education in order to reach a much larger audience.
Soon after the United States declared war on the Central Powers in April of 1917, Helen Fairchild an other nurses from the Pennsylvania Hospital Unit # 10 would volunteer their services to the American Expeditionary Force and head overseas to serve in the war. She would be exposed to deadly Mustard Gas in November, and after having surgery to remove a life threatening ulcer, would die from complications of that surgery in January of 1918. Her main job function was being station in the Passchendaele area, overlooking more than 2,000 wounded soldiers in the harshest of war conditions with the rest of her unit. Fairchild began her short-lived career after graduating as a nurse from Philadelphia in 1913. Much of her story while at war was documented by over 100 letters which were sent to her family in the United States. It's in these letters where the world first saw the bravery of the nurses, who had to care for so many in such extreme conditions. " The casualty clearing stations were frequently the scene of the most distressing sight which human eye can witness" Fairchild stated in one of her letters after first arriving near Passchendaele. She was very beloved by her fellow nurses and to this day remains a figure of early American nursing heroics.
Although much acclaim has been given to Florence Nightingale for her role in revamping medical care in Britain during the 19th century, Mary Seacole also played a very prominent role as well. Revered by many as an "unsung hero" of this time, Seacole was responsible for funding her own trip to help the sick during the Crimean War. There she tended to soldiers and delivered medicine and supplies. She even tried to join the nurses alongside Nightingale, but her application was denied. Many believed this denial was because of racial prejudice, as Seacole was of mixed race (having a Scottish father and Jamaican mother). Born in Jamaica, Secole favored the tropical herbal medicines and treatments taught to her by her mother. After traveling abroad to use these treatments to care for soldiers in the war, in addition to running several boarding houses at the same time, Seacole retired to Britain where she would document her life in her autobiography, considered on of the first by a black woman in Britain.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Many know of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln mainly through the life of her legendary husband, president Abraham Lincoln. Do some research on her life and their family, and many will tell you stories of her depression and sometimes "insane" behavior. Coming from a rather well-off family, Mary Todd Lincoln never needed much in terms of careers and settled in her role of mother and housewife very nicely, and soon found herself the First Lady of the United States. Many point out Mary Todd's extreme shopping sprees while in the White House which garnered her the ridicule of many Americans, or the accusations from both sides of the war questioning her allegiance. Factor in the death of her sons at such an early age, in addition to the stress of the war, and many see where her mental problems may have originated. What is often overlooked is Mary Todd Lincoln's contributions to the war, as she became a volunteer nurse to many soldiers in Union hospitals and later gave clothing and treatment to freed slaves after contributing to what became the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
When Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from nursing school in 1879, she would make history as the first graduate African American nurse. After deciding not to go into a career of domestic service (like many black women did at the time), she worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for many years before entering college. Mahoney graduated at the age of 34, becoming a graduate nurse and paving the way for other African American nurses in the future. Through her hard work she would provide the inspiration for the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which she helped co-found in 1908. Later in life Mahoney used her past experience to not only assist black women but all women in having educational and professional rights, further helping the status nursing has today.