Tag Archives: history of nursing

Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part Two)

The history of nursing is filled with illustrious figures like Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. But there are plenty of women whose contributions to this noble vocation are overlooked.

Elizabeth Fry

Memoirs_Life_Elizabeth_FryA Quaker and Christian philanthropist, Elizabeth Fry came to be known as the “angel of prisons.” At eighteen years old, Fry was moved by the sermons of American Quaker William Savey. She immediately took an interest in caring for the poor, sick, and incarcerated. Her efforts led her to Newgate Prison, where she was horrified to find the women’s prison crowded with both women and their children. She soon became an outspoken advocate for improving prison conditions, even spending the night in prisons occasionally herself and inviting members of nobility to do the same.

In 1840, Fry established a training school for nurses. Florence Nightingale later took a group of Fry’s nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War, and her experience working with them inspired her to start a similar program. By this time, Fry was quite well known throughout England; even Queen Victoria was an admirer of her work. The monarch granted Fry a few audiences and donated to her causes.

Anna Morris Holstein


The Holsteins (center) on site at a field hospital

Anna Morris Holstein may have been the last person you’d expect to see traveling with soldiers. She and her husband, William H. Holstein, were quite wealthy. But they still had a strong sense of duty. William had served in the Pennsylvania militia during Lee’s 1862 invasion. And when the couple witnessed the carnage at Antietam, they felt called to serve. Anna noted, “we have no right to the comforts of our home, while so many of the noblest of our land renounce theirs.”

Three_Years_Field_Hospital_Army_PotomacThe couple enlisted with the US Sanitation Commission. Anna struggled with the grisly realities of war and later admitted that she was of little use till she could gain control of her composure and stop crying. Even after she was more experienced, Anna would succumb to emotion when she received “earnest thanks” from a soldier. After the war, publisher JB Lippincott capitalized on the hunger for war stories, first with Hospital Sketches, then less successfully with Notes of Hospital Life (1864). Anna’s Three Years in Field Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac fit the bill to continue the trend.

Alice Fisher

Alice_FisherAlice Fisher didn’t immediately embark on a career in nursing. She started out as an author. Fisher penned Too Bright to Last in 1873, and the three-volume His Queen in 1875. But her father, an astronomer and priest, took ill and soon passed away, leaving Fisher to make her own way. She decided to pursue nursing, and went to school at the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses, where her mentor was none other than the founder herself. The two corresponded, but no letters are extant.

Hints_Nurses_Fisher_WilliamsFisher came to the US in 1884 as the superintendent of Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH), then more commonly known as Buckley Hospital. Fisher made sweeping changes to the hospital. Her approach was a sterling example of the benefits of standardized training for nurses. Along with fellow Nightingale nurse Rachel Williams, Fisher edited Hints for Hospital Nurses (1877).

Lavinia Dock

Lavinia_DockLavinia Dock graduated from the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in 1886. Two years later, she was in Florida during a yellow fever outbreak. Dock served alongside Jane Delano, who went on to found the American Red Cross Nursing Service. Dock was a contributing editor to American Journal of Nursing and authored a number of books on the subject, including a four-volume history of nursing and a nurse’s drug manual that was the standard reference for years. Dock served as the assistant superintendent of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing under Isabel Hampton Robb. Dock, Robb, and Mary Adelaide Nutting would go onto found to organization that evolved into the National League for Nursing.

Materia_Medica_Nurses_Lavinia_DockAfter Dock retired from nursing, she turned her attention more fully to the issue of women’s rights. She became active in the National Woman’s Party, leading numerous protests–including a picket of the White House. Dock was actually arrested on three separate occasions for militant protesting. But her efforts paid off, and she was instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment. This wasn’t Dock’s only political concern; she also lobbied for legislation that would allow nurses to control their own profession, rather than being overseen by doctors.

This month we’re pleased to offer works by these four women, along with a number of other select acquisitions on nursing. We invite you to peruse the entire list. Should you have a question about an item, please don’t hesitate to contact us!


Related Posts:
Edith Cavell: Nurse, Historian, and Traitor? 
Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part One)
Clara Barton: Heroine of Civil War Nursing and Record Keeping

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Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part One)

We all know Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton are major figures in the history of nursing, but they were certainly not the only women in the history of nursing who made an important mark. During the Civil War, a number of important historical figures turned their attention to nursing. Today we’ll look at Louisa May Alcott, Annie Wittenmyer, and Dorothea Dix.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa-May-AlcottBest known for Little Women, Louisa May Alcott penned dozens of popular works and was an early supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Her family were also passionate abolitionists; one of her earliest childhood memories was of a “Contraband” slave hiding in her family’s home, which was part of the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War broke out, Alcott was eager to support the cause. In December 1862, at thirty years old, Alcott began nursing at Union Hospital in Georgetown. She fell ill with typhoid pneumonia after only six weeks and returned home. Though she survived the illness, the mercury-based drugs used to treat it had lasting side effects; Alcott would never be fully healthy again.


Hospital Sketches (1869)

Alcott published Hospital Sketches in 1863. She noted that “the Sketches never made much money, but showed me ‘my style,’ and taking the hint I went where glory awaited me.” Alcott credited Hospital Sketches with showing her that her writing would be successful if she drew from her own experiences. Five years later, in 1868, Little Women would prove extremely popular for exactly that reason. Though Alcott’s stint as a nurse didn’t last long, it planted the seeds of some of America’s most beloved literature.

Annie Wittenmyer

Annie-WittenmyerSarah “Annie” Turner Wittenmyer began her career campaigning for orphans in Iowa. But during the Civil War, Wittenmyer joined the Keokuk Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society and turned her attention to caring for wounded soldiers. As Wittenmyer visited different military hospitals, she observed the deplorable conditions–and wasn’t shy about reporting them. Her advocacy resulted in new local support for funding and reform. In 1862, Wittenmyer was named Sanitary Agent for Iowa State Sanitary Commission. She was the first woman to hold that post.


Under the Guns (1895)

In 1864, however, Wittenmyer resigned the post to develop a dietary system for hospitals. By this time the practice of offering specialized food for convalescents was widely practiced. But she observed that these special diets were often poorly prepared–the people preparing the food often had little experience in food preparation, and the proper ingredients were often in short supply. Wittenmyer devised a plan to address at least the first of these challenges: she came up with a system of special kitchens that were overseen by female superintendents. Wittenmyer got support from the United States Christian Commission and established these kitchens at multiple large hospitals. The program was so successful that it was instituted at approximately 100 hospitals by the end of the Civil War. Wittenmyer even published a cookbook as a guide for the women running these kitchens.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix first became involved with the mentally ill at a prison in Massachusetts. She was shocked at the horrible conditions and lack of care that prisoners who clearly had mental illnesses Dorothea-Dixreceived, and she immediately began campaigning to improve their situation. But her focus changed on April 19, 1861, when a Massachusetts regiment on the way to Baltimore was waylaid by secessionists. Dix immediately boarded a train to Baltimore, intending to volunteer as a nurse. But when she arrived in Baltimore, Dix discovered that provisional hospitals had already been established and were relatively well staffed. Thus, she continued on to Washington, DC, where she offered her services as a nurse for the War Department.


Sequel to Marion Wilder (1828)

Despite her lack of medical training, Dix was made Superintendent of United States Army Nurses only months later. She immediately turned her attention to acquiring supplies and training staff. Dix insisted that her nurses all be over age 30 and plain looking. She also required them to wear drab uniforms. Her stringency paid off; Dix not only established order, but she also raised the standards of care.

Dix consistently demonstrated a selfless dedication to her cause. She once went to visit Joseph Fielding, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Fielding noted Dix’s exhaustion and asked why Dix had not taken a carriage. Dix noted that she hadn’t the money to hire a carriage because she’d spent all her money on medical supplies, and she staunchly refused to use the carriage Fielding requisitioned for her. Dix served as superintendent through the end of the Civil War, and then went back to advocating for the mentally ill.

Check back soon for Part Two, where we’ll introduce more overlooked figures in the history of nursing!