Development of the Nursing Profession

Famous Nurses Who Have Changed History
Famous Nurses Who Have Changed History

The profession of nursing has a rich history. Whether you are a current nurse looking to understand the roots of your work on a deeper level or an aspiring student considering nursing as a potential career path, the development of the nursing profession may inspire you with excitement for continued accomplishment and contribution to nursing in the present day.

This blog aims to detail the historical evolution of nursing and show the progression of how nursing has changed over the years and highlight influential people and factors from the beginning of nursing through the present time. By giving honor to those who have committed to this work of ethical caregiving, we may renew and inspire the hearts of nurses today when they are connected back to their roots.

In This Article

Nursing History: Apprentice Era
Nursing History: Beginning of Professional Nursing
Nursing History: Contemporary Nursing
Famous Nurses in History

Apprentice Nursing and Early Caregiving Professions

In the Medieval period, nursing was thought to be intuitive caregiving by those with the desire to help others. The predominant idea in this period of nursing history was that nursing was learned through observation and practice, but education was not required to be a nurse.

When considering the interdisciplinary teams of today, the foundations of holistic patient care can be seen in some of the early professions similar to nursing:

  • Healers were known for their focus on the spiritual wellness of a person.
  • Clergy helped care for patients through the incorporation of religious beliefs and practices.
  • Assistants did not provide direct medical care but may help gather supplies and provide other support to physicians.
  • Wet nurses helped to nourish and care for another mother’s child by breastfeeding.

In approximately 300 A.D., the Roman Empire aimed to place a hospital in every city under its rule, leading to a high demand for nurses to serve as caregivers alongside physicians.

The Beginning of Nursing as a Profession

While the beginnings of nursing history date back to ancient times, nursing as a profession began in the mid-19th century. Florence Nightingale was a courageous leader and pioneer in the field of nursing.

Florence Nightingale was born to wealthy parents and defied social norms to become a nurse. She campaigned for improved hygiene standards when cleanliness was a challenge for nursing care delivery and often resulted in a high number of deaths from infectious diseases. Today, Nightingale is most frequently credited as the person who paved the way for modern nursing.

The first formalized educational programs for nurses were primarily in hospitals where clinical instruction was provided to nurses in exchange for their work in patient care. As governmental financial support for the profession has grown, opportunities for nursing and medical research have also increased and allowed the chance for substantiating new scientific discoveries in patient care and a critical focus on evidence-based practice. During this period, the first dedicated nursing schools were founded, but the education of most nurses was connected directly to the hospitals and locations where health care services were delivered.

Contemporary Nursing

The emergence of university training for nursing education was another milestone in the history of nursing. In 1948, the National League of Nursing Education set a goal to move nurse training from hospital settings to the system of higher education training with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. This sparked a rapid growth of university nursing programs, including the University of Indianapolis Nursing Department being established in 1959.

The Influence of Technology on Nursing History and Evolution

From the perspective of modern nursing, technological advancements continue to dramatically shape the way patient care is delivered. Nursing informatics and the strategic incorporation of information technology can be seen in both large health care systems and point-of-care functions for monitoring patient health status. The influence of technology in early nursing also cannot be overlooked.

As telephone and camera technology advanced, the potential for improved continuity of care between providers emerged. Typewriters allowed faster documentation and transmission of communication than paper and pencil. Developments in the materials used for wound care along with an understanding and implementation of aseptic techniques led to improved infection prevention and treatment into the mid-20th century.

Development of Nursing Specialties

As nursing practice continued forward in history, nurses used critical thinking skills to optimize the use of resources and develop efficient processes with an improved organizational structure for nursing care delivery. Patient triage began to separate those with a critical or life-threatening illness from others needing different types of treatment.

Nursing specialties largely emerged as formalized nursing education programs allowed for the purposeful development of the nursing curriculum. Nurses skilled in particular areas of patient care began to teach specific types of nursing, and this supported the development of a more specialized nursing workforce.

Today, there are many careers for BSN-prepared nurses who can be found working in both clinical and non-clinical environments. Nursing has changed because nurses in history have dedicated themselves to quality improvement and the development of nursing as a respected profession. Next, let’s explore how nurses have made a difference through unique and meaningful expansions to both nursing skills and practice advancements.

Famous Nurses Who Have Changed Nursing History

Compassion, integrity, and trustworthiness are just the beginning of nursing virtues that have been displayed throughout the development of the nursing profession. Nurses are known to value human dignity and act as advocates for patients and families throughout history. Many famous nurses are remembered for their altruism in caring for those with diverse kinds of illnesses; the list below is only a sample of those deserving recognition.

Dorothea Dix

As the superintendent of army nurses during the Civil War, Dorothea Dix has made nursing history for her passion for patient advocacy and care for prisoners and those with mental illness. One of her most notable contributions to the nursing profession was the establishment of 32 hospitals across America and the recruitment of more than 2000 nurses to help provide care during the war. Dorothea Dix was dedicated to social reform and the improvement of living conditions for the patients under her care.

Dorothea Dix - Civil War nurse and mental health advocate

Clara Barton

As a young girl, Clara Barton is known for nursing her brother back to health and later rejoining the nursing workforce. Other contributions that Clara made to the development of the profession include:

  • Starting the American branch of the Red Cross
  • Speaking on disaster relief and assistance
  • Serving on the front lines of the battlefield during the Civil War

Clara Barton has been called the “Florence Nightingale of America” for her humanitarian efforts.

Clara Barton - Founder of the US branch of the Red Cross

Mary Breckenridge

The tragic passing of her children led Mary Breckenridge to focus on the development of programs to assist children, nursing mothers, and women throughout pregnancy. The programs she developed were influential in reducing infant mortality rates. Mary Breckenridge is known for founding Frontier Nursing Services and introducing the first nurse midwives to rural America.

Mary Breckenridge - Founder of Frontier Nurses of America

Virginia Henderson

Nursing theories have shaped the profession throughout history, and Virginia Henderson is credited for the practical application of her Need Theory. This theory focused on the need for patients to regain independence and function to reduce hospital stays. Virginia Henderson is also known for:

  • Working to index nursing literature to improve organization for research and education
  • Promoting nursing theory through teaching and publications
  • Authoring widely used textbooks on the principles and practice of nursing
Virginia Henderson - Nursing theory educator and author

Loretta Ford

The founding of the first educational program for nurse practitioners (NPs) was a collaborative effort between Loretta Ford and Henry Silver, MD. The development of advanced practice education for NPs was born from a lack of available primary care services. Loretta Ford is also known for contributions in:

  • Educating nurses to serve in the public health arena
  • Pediatrics emerging as one of the first nurse practitioner specialty areas
  • Increasing available primary care services
Loretta Ford - Pediatrics nurse practitioner pioneer

Goldie D. Brangman

The field of nurse anesthesia recognizes Goldie D. Brangman for cofounding the School of Nurse Anesthesia at Harlem Hospital. She worked there for most of her career and also directed the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. Goldie was part of the care team for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following an assassination attempt. She was also the first African American president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

Goldie D Brangman - Co-founder School of Nurse Anesthesia at Harlem Hospital

Lillian Wald

The term “public health nurse” was coined by Lillian Wald who was deeply involved in the community. Wald has been widely recognized for:

  • Close work with immigrant families in New York
  • Founding the Henry Street Settlement that provided health care and supported a person’s right to receive quality care at home
  • Advocating for the position of nurses in public schools

So many other famous nurses have also shaped the nursing profession as they have persevered through challenges and remained focused on upholding the esteemed virtues of nursing in both education and practice.

Lillian Wald - Public health advocate

Join the Nursing Profession with a Degree From UIndy

The need for nurses to earn professional credentials through the commitment to study and practice remains in our world today. Whether you are just beginning to explore your options for your future career path or are looking to transition from your current career into nursing, there continue to be innovative nursing education programs to accommodate a variety of learners.

The University of Indianapolis offers high-quality nursing instruction in an accelerated online format for those looking to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and become a registered nurse (RN). The program focuses on the development of graduates who are:

  • Ready to serve in nursing practice
  • Prepared through 1:1 preceptorship experiences
  • Immersed in a curriculum focused on leadership, professionalism, and quality academics
  • Trained to succeed on the nursing practice examination (NCLEX)

If you are ready to embark on your nursing education journey and join the profession through the completion of a nursing education program, the University of Indianapolis may be an excellent choice for your future. You can graduate with a quality nursing degree in as little as 15 months with 100% online coursework paired with in-person clinical experiences.

Visit the Distance Second-Degree Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program page today to learn more about enrollment in this accredited program.

Famous Nurses in History