Nursing as a practice goes back millennia. Nursing as a profession began during the Crimean War. Appalled by reports from the understaffed medical facility in Crimea, Florence Nightingale organized a corps of 38 nurses to aid doctors in the care of the wounded. When they arrived from Britain, the nurses found that the hospital was stifling and damp, the environment far worse than it was outdoors. Mortality rates were high, and not because of wounds sustained in battle. Most of the men who died had suffered from infectious diseases spread by bad water and contaminated supplies.
Nightingale’s first order of business was to provide nutritious food and appropriate rest to the convalescent. She then set about regulating temperature and airflow. Finally seeing an improvement in mortality rates, she had the nurses clean the hospital thoroughly. Nightingale was a capable statistician and noted that her processes, along with fresh water and improvements to the sewage system, decreased mortality rates by nearly two-thirds. The British government honored her upon her return and adopted many of her techniques. She went on to found the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, developing a curriculum that elevated nursing from practice to profession.
Florence Nightingale was not the only significant figure in early nursing history, of course. Lillian Wald, an American, was the world’s first public health nurse. She worked to extend reputable health care to vulnerable populations in late 19th century New York. Her advocacy focused primarily on improving conditions within tenements by providing the residents with medical attention and preventative care on a sliding scale.
Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross after a career as a teacher and battlefield nurse. Despite having no formal medical training, she tended to wounded soldiers during the Civil War. She used her own supplies, and when her operation became too large, she petitioned her representatives and the local public for aid.
Margaret Sanger was a significant (and controversial) figure in the development of the professional nursing role. Concerned by maternal and infant mortality rates, Sanger advocated for the use of contraception and sexual health as preventative care. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, an organization later known as Planned Parenthood. Like Lillian Wald, she worked tirelessly as a client advocate, educator, and collaborator in early public health nursing. (Although tremendously important in the field of women’s health, Sanger does have an unfortunate footnote: she was an outspoken supporter of eugenics.)