What inspires a person to become a nurse? For some, it’s simply the desire to help people. For others, the inspiration inspired by another nurse is the answer to that question. Individuals such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and Mary Todd Lincoln represent historic nurses who are inspirational to anyone. For those who enter the nursing field, the following individuals may provide even more inspiration:

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Whitman is, perhaps, is one of the most well-known poets of all time. He is most known for his role as author of the classic, Leaves of Grass; however, he is less known for his volunteer service as a nurse in Washington, D.C. army hospital during the Civil War. This experience provided material for his “The Great Army of the Sick”, which was published in a New York newspaper in 1863 and, twelve years later, for a book called Memoranda During the War.

Helen Fairchild (1885-1918)

Fairchild was a military nurse during WWI. She was one of 64 nurses from Pennsylvania Hospital Unit Ten who entered the war in 1917. As a volunteer for the American Expeditionary Force, she spent much of her time in a Casualty Clearing Station in Ypres-Passchendaele. From her letters, the reader learns that she would stand in mud up to 14 hours per day to treat patients. Fairchild was a diligent nurse, but her death one year after her entrance into the war cut her service short. She may have died from either the chloroform that was used in operating rooms at the time or possibly from a mustard gas bombing.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Sanger began her nursing career in New York’s underprivileged Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century. She left her nursing work when she realized the dramatic effects that unplanned pregnancies had on women who were destitute. She began to promote birth control and, in the process, offered women the ability to make their own reproductive decisions. Sanger later formed the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1942, an organization that continues to educate women about family planning choices today. In modern day language, Sanger might be considered an OB nurse.

Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965)

Breckingridge introduced a groundbreaking rural healthcare system, Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), in the U.S. in 1925. This model for rural areas initially provided nursing care and medical services to individuals in southeastern Kentucky. The FNS used a decentralized system of nurse-midwives, district nursing centers, and hospital facilities among other achievements, to make sure that no patient was more than six miles from healthcare within a 1,000-square mile region.

Mary Ezra Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mahoney was the first African-American registered nurse. She graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses in 1879, and went on to have an illustrious and outstanding career as a nurse. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. The NACGN eventually merged with the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 1951. She is commemorated by the biennial Mary Mahoney Award of the ANA for significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups.

Elizabeth Grace Neill (1846–1926)

Neill, a journalist, social reformer and nurse in New Zealand, was driven by the desire for change. She conceived the idea of a register for trained nurses, which would protect the public and the profession from malpractice by unqualified persons. In 1901, the bill which she helped draft was passed by Parliament and became the first Nurses’ Registration Act in the world. She established the first Nurses’ Registration Act in the world in 1901. Neill was deeply interested in women’s suffrage, and her ideas on the evils of indiscriminate relief to the poor were far in advance of those of her contemporaries. In memory of her services to the people of New Zealand, and to the nurses in particular, the Grace Neill Memorial Library was established at the Nurses’ Postgraduate School in Wellington.