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Virginia Avenel Henderson: Foremost Nurse of the 20th Century

Virginia Avenel Henderson
Through the years, plenty of nurses have done their part to advance the profession into the thriving and useful trade it is today. One reason that nursing care is so successful is because of the efforts of Virginia Avenel Henderson. Born on November 30, 1897, Henderson worked tirelessly throughout her life to help modernize and define nursing in a plausible and practicable way. Though she came into the world a bit after Florence Nightingale prepped the way for modern nursing, some have called her the Nightingale of the 20th century.

Henderson did not begin her life surrounded by the medical world. However, her ancestors had a long history of education and scholarship. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was occupied taking care of their eight children. While she was born in Missouri, she traveled to Virginia to stay with her aunt and uncle during her early years in order to receive a better education from grandfather’s community boys’ school.

Her first foray into the world of nursing began with her training and graduation from the US Army School of Nursing in 1921. Eager to get into the profession and put her skills to good use, she obtained a position at the Visiting Nurse Association of Washington, D.C. from 1921 to 1923. After these two years, she changed jobs and began to focus more on education by working as the full-time nursing instructor at the Norfolk Presbyterian Hospital between 1924 to 1929.

While this is an ordinary path into the world of nursing, it’s what Henderson did next that sets her apart from other nurses of her time. Instead of being content with her nursing degree, she went back to school at Teachers College, Columbia University to earn her BS and her Master’s degree in 1934. For a woman of this time period, this was quite the accomplishment.

After furthering her education, she decided to share her knowledge with others by becoming a professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University from 1934 to 1948. It was during her tenure here that she reworked the fourth edition of the “Textbook of the Principles and Practice of Nursing” which was published in 1939 by Bertha Harmer. Later in her life, she also revised the fifth and sixth editions, released in 1955 and 1978 respectively.

It was when she accepted a position as a research associate at Yale School of Nursing in 1953 that she really began to make lasting contributions to the field of nursing. She was hired to work on a funded project that would assess the status of nursing research throughout the country. Once this was complete, she became the director of the Nursing Studies Index Project, which lasted from 1959 to 1971. This project took a look at the first sixty years of nursing research and resulted in the publication of the “Nursing Studies Index,” which was the first publication of its kind.

After doing so much throughout her career, she dropped down to emeritus status at Yale in 1971 at the age of 75, continuing to teach in this position until her death in 1996. During this time, she also invented the Henderson Model of nursing, which is still used today as a standard for nursing practice.

Today, healthcare professionals judge the effect that nurses can have on people’s lives. However, that wasn’t always so. In the past, nursing research often focused solely on the nurses themselves. Henderson helped to change all of that, and because of her hard work, patients have benefited greatly. Because of her contributions, she’s received 12 honorary degrees, received the Christiane Reimann Prize from the International Council of Nurses, and even earned a spot in the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Henderson passed away at the age of 98 in 1996 in the state of Connecticut. However, she leaves behind a legacy that the nursing world will never forget. As the “first lady of nursing,” she’s a role model that many modern nurses can use during their own years of practice.


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