International Year of the Nurse: Celebrating Historical Nursing Heroes

Nurses at IPP
Nurses at IPP

To celebrate the hard work and dedication of nurses around the world, this International Year of the Nurse 2020 we are revisiting the inspirational journeys of some historical nursing figures.

Mary Seacole, The Greatest Black Briton 2014

Mary Seacole is introduced by Ben, Deputy Director for the International and Private Patients Service (IPP) at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH): 

“Mary’s story struck a particular chord for me at that time given my own experience of having served alongside frontline medics and having seen at first hand the courage and commitment required to deliver care and treatment whilst under fire. Mary did all of that, and much more besides, whilst also battling discrimination due to being black, which is poignant given the recent events in the US and UK, and highlights to me what a truly remarkable nurse she was and what a role model for us all.”

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, and faced difficulties during her career due to the colour of her skin. She persevered and eventually earned the title ‘Mother Seacole’.

Mary’s passion for nursing pushed her to turn her mother’s hall into a hospital in order to take care of local patients during the yellow fever pandemic in Kingston. She later grew strong maternal attachments to soldiers, and aspired to nurse British soldiers at The Crimean War (1853-1856). However, after she was initially refused permission due to her skin tone she funded her own trip and set up the British Hotel for the sick and the recovering. Her role included acting as a frontline army nurse, visiting the battlefield under fire to nurse the wounded.

Mary returned to the UK with very little money but had become very well-known and soldiers would often write to newspapers praising her work. It was through this determination and hard work that earned her the name ‘Mother Seacole’. Eventually, a fundraising gala was held for her and over 80,000 people attended, including generals and members of the Royal Family.

Today, Mary’s statue can be found at St Thomas’ Hospital, London and the Mary Seacole Trust continues to educate and inform people about her hard work and determination.

Christiane Reimann, founder of the ‘Noble Prize for Nursing’

Christiane Reimann is introduced by Kate, Head of Nursing for IPP:

“I have had the enormous privilege of working with a number of nurses from various backgrounds throughout my career and one of the things that has really struck me is that, in spite of our differences, we all share a passion for delivering the best possible care to our patients and for bringing positive change to our communities. By gathering together nurses from many countries into the International Council of Nurses, Christiane Reimann enabled us to learn from one another, to universally share good practice and to raise our collective voices to ensure that nurses the world over would be heard.”

Christiane Reimann was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1888. Despite opposition from her family, she completed her nursing training after World War I and sailed to New York, USA to further her career, earning both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. She became the first graduate-prepared Danish nurse.

Christiane contributed to the International Council of Nurses (ICN), an organisation for representing and giving a voice to nurses worldwide. She was elected the ICN Secretary and then became the Executive Secretary; her work to better the ICN included building relationships with governmental and public health organisations, nursing organisations and labour groups.

She travelled extensively at her own expense and helped the ICN membership grow from 13 to 20 countries. She also created a successful international nurse exchange programme, and an international nursing journal known as the ‘International Nursing Review’, which was made available at a library she founded at the ICN’s Geneva headquarters.

Even after retiring, Christiane offered her home as a nursing retreat and proposed to leave a sum of her fortune to establish the ‘Noble Prize for Nursing’. Today, the Christiane Reimann Prize is awarded every four years for a nurse showing considerable effort and passion in the nursing field.

Dorothea Dix, Creator of the First Mental Asylums in the USA

Dorothea Dix is introduced by Claudia, IPP matron:

“I feel passionate about mental health and wellbeing and it feels apt and appropriate for me to introduce Dorothea Dix, whose hard work and great developments in the field of mental health nursing are hopefully a testament that we all hold true, and will continue to be guided by within our roles, particularly following the unprecedented circumstances following Covid-19.”

Dorothea was born in Maine, USA in 1802. Although originally a teacher for poor and neglected children, she later gave up running her school after suffering bouts of illness which is now believed to have been major depressive episodes. After suffering a further breakdown, she visited Europe to improve her health. In Europe, Dorothea met with groups of social reformers and reformers for mental care.

After returning to the USA, she investigated the care of the mentally ill after noticing that many poor people suffering from mental health conditions were locked up alongside violent criminals and mistreated. In response, she wrote a report named ‘a Memorial’ to the state legislature and her lobbying resulted in the expansion of a mental health hospital in Massachusetts. Later she was behind the introduction of further bills in several states to improve mental health support, and eventually she established asylums in New Jersey, North Carolina and Illinois. She was instrumental in finding the first public mental hospital in Pennsylvania and the creation of the Scottish Lunacy Commission to oversee reforms.

Dorothea continued fighting for social reform throughout her life, passing away in 1887. Her legacy continues in the asylums she founded and the hospitals she reformed.

St. Camillus de Lellis, the Patron Saint of Hospitals, Nurses and the Sick

St. Camillus de Lellis is introduced by Thomas, Ward Manager of Bumblebee Ward:

“As a male nurse in a largely female profession, St Lellis is an inspiration, and this is why I am delighted to introduce him. I share many of St Lellis’ beliefs –the importance of teamwork, the importance of compassion in nursing care and the value of working as part of a multidisciplinary team to ensure holistic needs are met. I also share St Lellis’ belief in the need for nurses to be highly trained and passionate about what they do – something that I am proud to witness daily here at GOSH.”

St. Camillus de Lellis was born in Bucchianico, Italy, in 1550. Originally a solder known as ‘big bully’, Camillus de Lellis decided to turn his life around after having a religious experience and joined the Capuchins, a religious order.

Camillus de Lellis was dismissed by the Capuchins after an abscess on his leg returned and travelled to Rome to seek treatment. During his time at the hospital, he was displeased with the attitude of the hospital’s nurses; he felt that they were untrained and not passionate about their work, showing very little interest in the patient’s health. He sought to bring about positive change for patients and saw this as a way to fulfil his vow to God.

Camillus de Lellis gathered similar-minded people to follow his example and ensure the sick were appropriately cared for. He eventually established the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm, better known as the Camillians. His experience in wars helped him establish a group of healthcare workers to assist soldiers, and members of the order also devoted themselves to victims of the bubonic plague. The large red cross on their cassock remains a symbol of the Order today. Their ‘Red Cross’ was later adopted as the international symbol of medical care. In his lifetime, the order expanded across Europe to help the sick; today the order can be found in 42 countries.

Camillus de Lellis died in 1614 at the age of 64 and was officially canonised a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1746, with his work described as a ‘new school of charity’.