10 of the Most Influential Nurses in History

Ann Feeney
Updated February 5, 2024
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    Check out these 10 nurses who have made an impact on healthcare throughout history.
    Featured ImageCredit: Featured Images from top to bottom, left to right: Florence Nightingale, traveler1116 / Getty Images; Clara Barton, Print Collector / Getty Images; Mary Eliza Mahoney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Sojourner Truth, Bettman / Getty Images; Margaret Sanger, Bettman / Getty Images; Hazel Johnson-Brown, The Washington Post / Getty Images

    For Women’s History Month and beyond, we’re featuring 10 influential nurses who changed the course of nursing by breaking racial barriers, reshaping the healthcare landscape, and founding organizations that impacted the world. Some of these nurses are known globally, while others worked on a local basis.

    Today, more than 85% of nurses in the U.S. are women. We salute all the hard-working, compassionate, and visionary nurses shaping the future of healthcare. While this list is nowhere near exhaustive, below are 10 of the most influential nurses in history, listed alphabetically.

    10 Most Influential Nurses in History

    Clara Barton

    Clara Barton (1821-1912) had no formal training as a nurse, but she became one of the most famous nurses in U.S. history. She was an abolitionist and a women’s suffrage advocate. When wounded Civil War soldiers flooded makeshift hospitals, Barton started to care for the injured. She then joined the Army to care for wounded soldiers at the war front.

    After the war, Barton went to Europe to recuperate, where she learned about the International Red Cross. Upon returning home, she founded the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross has been criticized for racism in the past, including when it refused to accept blood from Black individuals during donor drives until 1942.

    Goldie D. Brangman

    Goldie D. Brangman (1917-2020) was a nurse anesthetist, the cofounder of the School of Nurse Anesthesia at Harlem Hospital in 1951, and the first African American president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. She was part of the surgical team that operated on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after a 1958 assassination attempt, manually pumping his breathing bag.

    Mary Breckinridge

    Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965) was born to wealth but dedicated her life to nursing the poor after a family tragedy. Breckinridge, however, also had racist beliefs, including believing in white superiority and promoting the value of segregation and eugenics.

    Though she is seen as a pioneer in nurse midwifery, founding the Frontier Nursing Service and later opening the Frontier School of Midwifery and Nursing Services, she refused to hire Black midwives. During the 1918 flu pandemic, she took up nursing in Washington, D.C. tenements. After World War I, she organized a nursing program in war-stricken France.

    Virginia Henderson

    Virginia Henderson (1897-1996) shaped nursing education through the application of her Need Theory, which stated the goal of nursing is to enable the patient to achieve independence as quickly as possible. She promoted this theory through her teaching and publications, especially her revision of the “Textbook of the Principles and Practices of Nursing” (1939) and “Basic Principles of Nursing Care” (1972).

    She also advanced nursing education and research by leading the first nursing literature indexing project.

    Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

    Hazel W. Johnson-Brown (1927-2011) was denied entry to the local nursing school in West Chester, Pennsylvania, because she was Black. Instead, she attended nursing school in New York and enlisted in the Army, where she earned multiple promotions. She became director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing, served as chief nurse of the Army hospital in Seoul, and received a promotion to brigadier general and commanded the Army Nurse Corps.

    As the first Black woman to accomplish these feats, Johnson-Brown holds a place among famous nurses in history.

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    Mary Eliza Mahoney

    Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) was the first African American nurse in history to complete official nurse training. In 1879, she changed the history of nursing by graduating from the rigorous New England Hospital for Women and Children’s Nursing School, where she previously worked as a janitor and cook.

    She was one of the first Black members of what became the American Nurses Association and cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.

    Florence Nightingale

    Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was born into elite social circles and was instrumental in advancing the nursing profession. She founded the first science-based nursing school in the world, was one of the first to carry out diligent handwashing, and developed the Royal Commission for the Health of the Army.

    However, Nightingale also caused harm. Her racism impacted many as she supported colonizing efforts and policies. For instance, she condoned the separation of Indigenous children from their families to send them to racist ‘boarding schools.’ She also held racist views of the Indigenous peoples in New Zealand. Her political actions, taken after her nursing efforts in the Crimean War, helped lead to the genocide of Indigenous people.

    Margaret Sanger

    Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) worked as a visiting nurse in New York City’s tenements, when it was illegal to prescribe or mail information about birth control. Sanger advocated for access to birth control information and legal contraception.

    Unfortunately, she also believed in eugenics. She aligned with ableist and white supremacist ideologies, which undermined reproductive rights for minority groups.

    She also founded the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood, in 1921.

    Sojourner Truth

    A famous activist , Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was also an informally trained nurse who, in addition to fighting for abolition and equality, advocated for formal nurse education for African American women.

    Her 1844 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech demanding equality for women and African Americans made her one of the most famous nurses in history.

    Betty Smith Williams

    Betty Smith Williams (1929-present) was the first African American to graduate from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University and the first to teach at a college or university in California.

    In 1971, she cofounded the Council of Black Nurses, Los Angeles, became a founding member of the National Black Nurses Association, and then cofounded and was president of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations.