History’s greatest nurses

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History’s greatest nurses


International Nurses Day is celebrated on the birthday of perhaps the most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Through the years, the nursing profession has seen people from all walks of life find a career full of passion and dedication. Here are some of the stories behind some of nursing’s famous names, past and present.

England: Florence Nightingale

British nurse Florence Nightingale came to prominence during the Crimean War, when the mortality rate in military hospitals was seven times higher than on the actual battlefields, thanks to unhygienic conditions. As simple as it sounds today, she proved that well trained nurses and clean hospitals would save lives.

She was known as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ through making her rounds of wounded soldiers at night, but behind this romantic image was an intelligent and determined nurse, whose actions reduced the death rate in her hospital from 42% to 2%. She is rightfully celebrated as one of nursing’s most admired figures.

America: Clara Barton

This American nurse started life as a painfully shy young girl who had problems making friends as she was so timid. It was when her brother received an injury falling off a barn roof that she found her calling. Learning nursing techniques, she continued to care for him even after doctors had given up; he made a full recovery. This led to a career in nursing and during the American Civil War she was known as the Angel of the Battlefield.

After experiences in Europe with the Red Cross, she decided to found the American branch of the organisation and after overcoming even the doubts of the President at the time, she succeeded in 1881 and the American Red Cross was born.

New Zealand: Elizabeth Grace Neill

Grace Neill was instrumental in getting laws passed requiring training and national registration of nurses and midwives in her native New Zealand – making it the first country in the world to do so.

Having trained as a nurse in London, she moved to Queensland to follow her husband who had set up a medical practice. After the death of her husband, she used her knowledge and influence through working in the department in charge of hospitals, asylums, and charitable aid to help draft and pass a bill for a Nurse’s Registration Act.

Not content, she knew that a similar system was needed for midwifery and she created not only a curriculum but also established the first training centres for midwives, despite opposition from doctors who felt their income and influence was threatened by her proposed changes to the system.

England: Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was around 30 when she began her career in nursing, working as a nurse probationer at the London Hospital in Whitechapel and eventually moving to Brussels in order to become a matron in a the Brussel’s Berkendael Institute.

During the World War II German occupation of Brussels, alongside her nursing duties she helped close to 200 allied soldiers as well as French and Belgian civilians escape to neutral territories. Her bravery sadly ended with her arrest and execution by firing squad a year into the war.

Jamaica: Mary Seacole

Another, less famous story from the Crimean War, Mary Seacole was a Jamaican who applied to the War Office to assist in the war effort at least four times but was turned down, possibly through a lack of any official medical training. Undeterred, she travelled to the Crimea under her own steam and set up quarters for wounded officers behind the lines all at her own expense.

After the war, ill and broke despite having been awarded the British Crimea Medal, the French Légion d'honneur and the Turkish Order of the Medjidie medal, Mary Seacole retired to England. Fundraising efforts from well-wishers were successful in keeping her from destitution into her old age. Whilst her actual medical achievements are still hotly disputed, her name is still associated with the nursing profession today.

Nigeria: Kofoworola Abeni Pratt

This Nigerian-born nurse was originally discouraged from the profession by her father and as a result trained as a teacher. It was only after moving to England with her British husband in 1946 that Kofoworola Abeni Pratt began her prestigious career in nursing, training at the Nightingale School at St Thomas' Hospital and becoming the first black nurse to work in the NHS.

Upon her return to Nigeria, she was appointed Matron of the University College Hospital in Ibadan, the first Nigerian to hold the position, as well as being appointed the Commissioner of Health for Lagos in the 1970s. She was also awarded the prestigious Florence Nightingale medal and made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Nursing.

Wales: Jonathan Asbridge

Sir Jonathan Elliott Asbridge, the first president of the UK's Nursing and Midwifery Council, started his profession as a St John Ambulance Cadet at Cardiff Castle Division, Cardiff. He continued his studies at the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, St Thomas' Hospital, London, and gained a diploma in nursing at Swansea University. In his career he has been chief nurse at Barts and the Royal London Hospitals as well as Oxford University and Cambridge University Teaching Hospitals.

He is a member of the Royal College of Nursing, Amnesty International, and the Standing Nursing and Midwifery Advisory Committee. He is a trustee of the Nurses Welfare Service. He is also the senior nursing editor for the Journal of Clinical Evaluation in Practice. He currently is Interim Director of Nursing for NHS London, the Strategic Health Authority for London.

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