Brittany Hamstra BSN, RN, CPN
Brittany Hamstra BSN, RN, CPN
May 4, 2023 - 4 min read

A Celebration of Lesser-Known Nurses in History

To most people, the names Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton have a familiar ring. To nurses especially, these women have well-known and impressive legacies that continue to impact healthcare today.

In honor of Nurses’ Week this year, we would like to again celebrate a few more lesser-known names of nursing history. These nurses have single-handedly changed the face of nursing care, advocated for underserved populations, and forged clinical advancements. Let’s pay homage to some unsung heroes of nursing.

1. Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail (1903-1981)


Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was a pioneer for equal access to healthcare for Native American people. Raised on a Crow American Indian reservation, and the only child to speak English on the reservation, she was able to pursue higher education. She graduated with honors from the Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing, and became one of the first registered nurses of Native American descent in the United States. After earning her degree, she worked with multiple tribes across the country. During her time on the Indian reservations, she documented the overall lack of access to medical care and discrimination against Native American populations. She witnessed Indian women being sterilized without consent, children dying during 30-mile treks to the nearest facilities, and poor health outcomes as a result of language barriers. Motivated by the atrocities of her native people, Susie spent her entire career fighting for Native American equal access to healthcare, improving support of surrounding communities, and advocating for health policies for women and children on reserves.

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2. Anita Dorr (1900-1972)


A true innovator for Emergency Nursing, we can all thank Anita Dorr during our next code blue. Anita’s affinity for emergency medicine overflowed beyond the hospital walls when she built the first-ever crash cart prototype in her basement in 1968. While working in the emergency department, she noticed how long it took staff to gather emergency equipment during moments of crisis. Anita assembled a red cart with all necessary code supplies, organized anatomically — head and neck items for intubation and breathing were first at hand, followed by cardiac and venous access supplies, medications, and even a clipboard for recording each intervention during the event. In present day, there isn’t a single hospital without a bright red, fully-stocked crash cart in every hallway. In addition to her innovation, Anita Dorr also established the first nursing organization of that specialty, later dubbed the Emergency Nurses Association (which today has over 50,000 members from across the world).

3. Hildegard Peplau (1909-1999)


Known as the “mother of psychiatric nursing,” Hildegard Peplau dedicated her life to the study of interpersonal psychology — the shared experience between nurse and patient. Focusing attention on the patient-nurse relationship seems like common sense now, but was completely out-of-the-box thinking in the 1950’s when nurses were not trained on the holistic care of patients. Patient satisfaction and participation in care were generally disregarded. Peplau challenged the status quo and went on to publish her Theory of Interpersonal Relations, a model which served as the framework to develop the HCAHPS survey. (The HCHAPS survey now serves as a national benchmark to measure quality of patient experience among hospitals across the country.)

As her theory caught on, nursing as a profession began to encompass a therapeutic care model which focused on the patient experience. A huge part of the ability to provide meaningful care was Peplau’s proposition that nurses should have limited patient ratios. Patient ratios are still a relevant and essential point of discussion today, and we can thank Peplau for being the first voice to advocate for fair ratios.

4. Sister Jean Ward


Keenly observant and clever, Sister Jean Ward made an amazing discovery in Essex, England in the 1950’s. Many premature infants are born with jaundice, a yellowing of skin and eyes, due to immature liver functioning and buildup of bilirubin in the body. Without correction, it leads to brain toxicity and sensory loss. In the 1950’s, neonatal jaundice was treated by exchange blood transfusions — both invasive and complex. While working as a nurse in the premature infant unit, Jean would sneak babies to the outside courtyard for short periods of time because she intuitively thought fresh air and sunlight would have healing benefits for her patients. After those trips outside, Jean noticed that the yellow tint of her neonates began to fade. One day in particular, the baby she held transitioned from yellow to pink in color, except the one foot that was covered by a blanket. In disbelief, the doctors extrapolated Jean’s theory and tested phototherapy treatment on infants with jaundice. They built a machine with fluorescent bulbs and cycled the babies under hours of light therapy with impressive results. Now, light therapy is ubiquitous. It is the treatment of choice for neonatal jaundice in hospitals across the world.

5. Florence Wald (1917-2008)


Florence Wald was a visionary and compassionate. During her years as a nurse, she recognized that the medical profession often ignored quality of life for terminally-ill patients. She believed in the comfort and dignity of patients, no matter how poor the prognosis. She wanted to reform end-of-life care and develop facilities to provide palliative treatment for dying patients.

Through collaboration with coworkers at Yale, she founded the first hospice facility in the United States in 1980. Florence was the catalyst for hospice care and within a few decades, more than 3,000 hospice programs opened across the country. She even initiated a program to provide hospice care to dying prison inmates in the 1990’s. She is now known as “the mother of the American hospice movement.”

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