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Building on Nursing's Legacy

Kennedy, Maureen Shawn, MA, RN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: June 2014 - Volume 114 - Issue 6 - p 7
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000450406.49444.1c

Why new nurses need to know what our past holds.

AJN Editor-in-Chief E-mail:



I think about nursing's legacy often, and recently I prepared to speak about it at the annual National Student Nurses’ Association (NSNA) meeting in Nashville in April. I wasn't expecting a big audience. With most student attendees about to begin their careers, I assumed they'd be more interested in sessions that dealt with passing the nursing board examinations and interviewing for jobs. But both my sessions were full, and many students came up afterward and told me they didn't know much about the history of our profession.

Nursing history, if it's included in the curriculum at all, is usually addressed briefly as part of a broader course that covers everything from social policies to nursing ethics. Students in RN-to-BSN or accelerated second-degree programs might get even less exposure. I realize that there are other educational priorities: an undergraduate nurse's schedule is packed with science courses and laboratory and clinical hours. But we need to convey to the next generation of nurses that they aren't simply learning job skills—they're joining a profession with a legacy of service and social commitment. We need to imbue in them a sense of personal responsibility and a feeling for the limitless potential of nursing.

In 1996, when the J. B. Lippincott Company (later absorbed into Wolters Kluwer Health) purchased AJN from the ANA and the offices were being moved, I came across several file cabinets slated for disposal. They were jammed with archival photos and papers dating back to 1900. I enlisted the help of former AJN editor and publisher Thelma Schorr, and we spent a year sorting through these materials, immersed in nursing history. Thelma had witnessed much of what transpired during the last half of the 20th century, with a journalist's eye for details. But my nursing education had provided little exposure to this history. Now, learning about early nurse leaders and how nursing was practiced before health care became “medicalized” left me in awe. I read firsthand accounts by nurses who had provided care under arduous conditions, such as that by a nurse who traveled into Michigan's deep woods to provide care to loggers during the 1919 influenza epidemic. I read original reports by nurses who helped to create the U.S. health care system, including Lillian Wald, who founded public health and school nursing; Isabel Hampton Robb, who organized hospital nursing services; Mary Breckinridge, who brought the services of expert midwives to Appalachia; and Jane Delano, who organized American Red Cross nurses during World War I. (To read these stories, visit and use the search box; subscribers get full access to archives.) There were many other creative, thoughtful, and politically astute nurses who forged ways to deliver care to people in need. I'd had no idea that nursing's legacy was one of such honor and accomplishment.

In my NSNA presentation, I talked about some of these historical figures. I also spoke about more recent movers and shakers, such as Ruth Lubic, who established some of the first freestanding birthing clinics and family care centers, and many others lauded as “edge runners” by the American Academy of Nursing. These nurses share a passion for advocacy work on behalf of the poor and unlimited access to health care for all. They show that nurses are the “go-to” people for making health care systems work.

At AJN, we think it's important for nurses to know about the origins of modern nursing and how far our understanding of disease, nursing practices, and societal attitudes has progressed. Several universities hold wonderful nursing archives, among them the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, the Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry at the University of Virginia, and the Midwest Nursing History Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The American Association for the History of Nursing ( maintains a list of others.

Most of AJN’s archival materials went to the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. But we aren't leaving it all in storage. Recently we began running excerpts from AJN’s archives (often thematically linked with a current article) to highlight how nursing has changed, and the feedback has been positive. We want to ensure that new nurses have nursing's legacy to draw upon as they move forward. It's a legacy that can inspire us all.

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