Nurses Named Mary Have Changed the Profession

May 8th, 2012


By , BSN, RN

Back in July of last year I wrote a blog titled “5 Besides Florence”, discussing some other famous nurses in history besides Florence Nightingale. Since this is National Nurses Week I thought it only appropriate to spend some time looking at some of the other names of note in the nursing profession.

When I started thinking about the nurses in history I could name, I had several named “Mary.” Then, it became a challenge to see if I could fill a whole blog with Mary’s without repeating any from that 2011 article. I found five.

  • Mary Seacole (1805 – 14 May 1881)- Seacole was a pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, whose work was overshadowed by Nightingale due to a combination of race and gender attitudes of the times and Nightingale’s own disapproval of some of Seacole’s activities.

    Born of a Scottish soldier father and a Jamaican mother, Seacole learned her nursing skills from her mother, who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. Seacole loved to travel and visited much of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, as well as Central America and Britain. On these trips she complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas. In 1850 Kingston was hit by a cholera epidemic. While on a trip to Panama she helped nurse the ill through another cholera epidemic.

    In 1854, Seacole applied at the British War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea where there was known to be poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers and cholera was rampant. She was refused. Later, she applied directly to Nightingale but was again refused. Undaunted, she funded her own trip to the Crimea where she established a hotel near Balaclava to provide a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as “Mother Seacole.”

    Seacole returned to London in 1856 and was well known to the end of her life, however she rapidly faded from public memory. Her work in Crimea was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale’s. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in her and efforts to properly acknowledge her achievements. She has been widely acknowledged for her work in both England and Jamaica.

  • Mary Ann Bickerdyke (July 19, 1817 – November 8, 1901)- Bickerdyke was born near Mount Vernon, Ohio. She enrolled at Oberlin College, one of the few institutions of higher education open to women at this time in the United States, but she did not graduate. Upon leaving Oberlin, Bickerdyke became a nurse. She assisted doctors in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the cholera epidemic of 1837. She moved to Galesburg, Illinois in 1856, where she continued to work as a nurse to support her two young sons after the death of her husband.

    At the outbreak of the Civil War, residents of Galesburg purchased medical supplies for soldiers serving at Cairo, Illinois. The townspeople trusted Bickerdyke to deliver these supplies. In Cairo, Bickerdyke used the supplies to establish a hospital for the Northern soldiers. She spent the remainder of the war traveling with various Union armies, establishing more than three hundred field hospitals to assist sick and wounded soldiers.

    Both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman admired Bickerdyke for her bravery and for her deep concern for the soldiers. The soldiers nicknamed her "Mother Bickerdyke" because of her continuing concern for them. With the Civil War's conclusion, Bickerdyke continued to assist Northern veterans. She provided legal assistance to veterans seeking pensions from the federal government. She also helped secure pensions for more than three hundred women nurses.

  • Mary Eliza Mahoney (April 16, 1845 – January 4, 1926)- Mahoney was the first African-American registered nurse. She was born free in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and became interested in nursing when she was a teenager. She worked for fifteen years at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Mass., as a cook, janitor, washerwoman, and an unofficial nurse's assistant. In 1878, at the age of thirty-three, she was admitted as a student into the hospital's nursing program. Sixteen months later, she was one of four who completed the rigorous course (of forty-two who started with her). After graduation she worked primarily as a private duty nurse for the next 30 years all over the East Coast. She ended her nursing career as director of an orphanage in Long Island, New York; a position she had held for a decade.

    In 1896, Mahoney became one of the original members of a predominately white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (later known as the American Nurses Association or ANA). In 1908 she was cofounder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Mahoney gave the welcoming address at the first convention of the NACGN and served as the association's national chaplain.

  • Mary Adelaide Nutting (November 1, 1858 – October 3, 1948) – In 1889, Nutting left Quebec, Canada for Baltimore, Maryland in order to enter the first class of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses. After graduating in 1891, she served as a head nurse at the school. In 1894, she became the school's principal. Nutting held this position until 1907. That year, she joined the faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City and became the world's first professor of nursing.

    Nutting headed the Department of Nursing and Health at the college from 1910 until she retired in 1925. During her lifetime, Nutting made significant contributions to nursing literature. She wrote A Sound Economic Basis for Nursing, co-authored with Lavinia Dock the first two volumes of the four-volume History of Nursing, and wrote many articles for nursing and health periodicals.

  • Mary Breckenridge (February 17, 1881 – May 16, 1965)- Breckinridge was born into an influential political family, including a vice-president grandfather and her father who was a U.S. congressman and minister to Russia. When she was only 26 years old, her first husband died and left her a widow. Following his death, Breckinridge entered a nursing class at New York City’s St. Luke’s Hospital. She remained there three years, earning a degree in nursing in 1910. In 1912 she remarried to a Kentucky native. The couple had two children but both died before the age of five.

    Breckinridge developed an interest in public health, learned of the work of nurse-midwives while in working in France after World War I, and later studied midwifery in London before such training was available in the U.S. Upon her return to the U.S. Breckinridge was looking for a place to put her training to use. After a study of the region she determined that Leslie County, Kentucky, was the place. She established the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1925 to provide professional health care in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, one of America's poorest and most isolated regions.

    Since 1925, the FNS has registered over 64,000 patients, and in its first 50 years, it delivered 17,053 babies with only 11 maternal deaths. Both the Frontier School of Midwifery and the hospital Breckinridge established in Hyden, Kentucky (now called the Mary Breckinridge Hospital) remain in operation today.

Now, I don’t really think that being named Mary means you will necessarily be a great or innovative nurse but it is definitely one of the characteristics these women shared. I am proud to work amongst their ranks and hope in my professional career to be even half the nurse they were.

Happy National Nurses Week. I think we build a better future if we understand our past and these nurses certainly moved this profession forward.

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