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The evolution of nurses day or nurses week took many years to become official. The first official attempt was in 1953 when Dorothy Sutherland of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare proposed a “Nurses Day” to President Eisenhower. She wanted it to reflect the 100th Anniversary of Florence Nightingale's mission to Crimea, but it did not get done. However, the following year in 1954, a National Nurses Week was celebrated from October 11-16 (Gillies, 2003).
In 1955, a bill was introduced to declare a National Nurses Week, but it did not pass. Ten years later, the International Council of Nurses started celebrating “International Nurses Day”. President Nixon is asked in 1972 to acknowledge a “National Registered Nurse Day”, but it did not happen. However, two years later, Nixon proclaims “National Nurses Week”. The same year, the International Council of Nurses proclaims May 12 as “International Nurse Day” (Gillies, 2003).
There are several milestones in the years that followed, and in 1982 the ANA recognized May 6 as “National Recognition Day for Nurses”. That same year, Congress also made a resolution for May 6 to be “National Recognition Day for Nurses”, and then President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation on March 25 declaring the same (Gillies, 2003).
The ANA made nurses week (May 6-12) official in 1990 (Gillies). May 12 is Florence Nightingale's birthday, so it is fitting that we end the week of celebration - celebrating her.
After attending nursing school in Germany, Florence went back to London and became superintendent of a hospital for “gentlewomen” (The History, 2016). Her work in public health and during the Crimean War set new standards for healthcare. She decreased mortality by improving sanitary conditions. Not only that, she kept records of the people who died, and how they died. This allowed her to make the connection between sanitation and disease. Florence actually had some of the first evidence-based research in healthcare.
Looking back at how many changes (or not) have taken place in nursing and the medical field, it seems overwhelming. Even so, the nurse's mission has remained steady throughout this medical metamorphosis. This is evidenced in a book published in 1930, , F.A.C.P. In the preface, he tells us what his perspective of what a nurse is.
“The function of the nurse in medical diseases is to observe symptoms accurately, to recognize early signs of complications and to carry out the physician’s orders intelligently” (1930).
This description applies today just as much as it did in 1930. Although we have made great strides in chemistry, biology, and electronics, our basic purpose remains as it always has been - to provide care to our patients to the best of our ability without doing any harm. I love my old medical and nursing books. I enjoy reading them and seeing the nursing students’ signatures written crookedly inside the front cover and maybe some scribbled notes of something they thought was important. These books are precious, connecting the past with the present.
One of the books in my collection was written in 1917 by George M. Price, M.D. called, Hygiene and Sanitation A Text-Book for Nurses. When I flipped to the dedication page, it read,
“To Lillian D. Wald - The pioneer of Public Health Nursing in the United States and the foremost advocate for the extension of the scope of the nurses’ work. This book is dedicated in appreciation and respect” (Price, 1917).
Wow. Makes me wonder if he knew her or just knew of her. This is the perfect segue into talking about Lillian D. Wald and her contributions to the world of sanitation, education, and the improvement of conditions for children in that day and time.
Lillian Wald is known for her work in reforming public health. Not only did she open a “settlement house” (opened in poor urban areas in an attempt to bring the rich and the poor together in proximity and socially) in 1893 called the Henry Street Settlement, she moved into the house along with her friend and fellow nurse Mary Brewster (Lillian, n.d.).
There in the house, she provided nursing care for the poor. Eventually, there were many nurses who would come and volunteer their time. Soon, the settlement was able to open playgrounds, afterschool programs, kindergarten, mother’s groups and more. Lillian was able to discern what the community needed and then make sure it happened.
Together, she and other well-known women’s rights activist such as Lavinia Dock and Florence Kelley helped to write textbooks, aiding to the progression of the professional nurse. New York City school children benefited from the many people living in that settlement who helped to improve conditions in the schools. Special educations classes were created, and a program for school nurses was started, along with a lunch program for the students. Lillian’s activism and hard work in her community were boundless, including her work in the political arena to end child labor. Her story is a good example of how one nurse changed a country (Lillian, n.d).
Getting back to the book, I thought you would enjoy what Dr. Price had to say in his preface.
“The last decade has seen a wonderful expansion of the function of the trained nurse and a great broadening of the scope of her usefulness. No longer are her duties limited to the simple care of the sick. The nurse has become a priestess of prophylaxis. Her work in preventative medicine has become invaluable. She has become an important factor in social, in municipal, and in public health work” (Lillian, n.d).
**To all the wonderful male nurses out there, know that we appreciate you and you are the “princes of prophylaxis”. **
While documenting in charts has become obsolete, we now see our faces in the reflections of all of the electronic devices we use. We get lab, and other results in real time and can treat patients sooner. Communication has become easier and faster, decreasing the incidents of delay of care and improving patient outcomes. While all of this is great, let’s not forget to look up and make eye contact with our patients; they need it, and so do we. Just from looking at them we can tell so much. We can see if they are pale, in pain, or nervous, and most of all, it begins the process of building a rapport.
Nurses Week is to celebrate you. All the times you ignore your back pain and keep going, or brush off the bladder that is about to burst in order to care for your patient. As you bring them their lunch while yours is getting cold, this week is for you. When a doctor yells at you for something that is no fault of yours, this week is for you. As you walk to your car on feet that are so tired they can’t take any more steps, we celebrate you.
The connection we have as nurses over the past decades to now binds us in our journey of serving. The best things about the healthcare system have been created by nurses just like you. Do some creating of your own and don’t forget to get a massage to reward yourself. You never know, decades from now, nurses may be reading about you and all the wonderful things that you were able to accomplish. Tell us about some things you would like to pioneer.
Blumgarten, A. (1930). A Textbook of Medicine for Students in Schools of Nursing. New York: The MacMillan Company.
Filiacia, A. Lillian Wald - Public Health Progressive. (n.d.). Wordpress. Retrieved from www.lillianwald.com
Gillies, H. Florence Nightingale The History of Nurses Week. (2003). CountryJoe. Retrieved from www.countryjoe.com/nightengale/nursesweek.htm.
Price, G. (1917). Hygiene and Sanitation A Textbook for Nurses. Philadelphia and New York: Lea & Febiger.
The History of Nurses Week. (2016). Ashford University. Retrieved from