30 Most Influential Nurses

If you’re thinking about embarking on the journey to become a nurse, take comfort in the fact that you’ll be in good company. The profession is generously peppered with notable healthcare workers who not only did their jobs well but made a lasting impact on the industry. In this article, we’ll list 30 of these amazing healthcare professionals and discuss their accomplishments.

Adda May Allen: Inventor of Baby Bottle Liners

In the 1940s, Washington D.C. neonatal nurse Adda May Allen made a significant contribution to her specialty by inventing disposable liners for baby bottles. She was inspired to create the liners after watching the newborns in her care struggle to get milk out of a traditional bottle, often working against a collapsed nipple. The liners were also lifesavers for mothers who could forego the tedious sterilization process and opt for convenient disposables instead.

Martha Ballard: American Midwife


An American midwife, Martha Ballard kept detailed journal entries regarding her nursing duties, which provide great insight into the early days of the profession. Her 1,400-page diary sheds light on the role of women in the frontier community and the particular struggles faced during childbirth during this period. Interestingly, Ballard was the great aunt of another influential nurse on our list, Clara Barton.

Clara Barton: Founder of the Red Cross


A self-taught nurse, Clara Barton is known for her treatment of soldiers during the Civil War. In addition to providing life-saving medical care, Clara also offered companionship and emotional support to the patients in her charge. Using her home as a storage space, she began collecting medical supplies on her own as well as organizing drives for donations of food, clothing, and bandages for wounded soldiers. Clara Barton is well-known for founding the American branch of the Red Cross in the late 1800s.

Terri Barton-Salinas & Gail Barton-Hay: Sisters of Invention

Concerned about the potential for errors in administering medication to patients intravenously, sisters and registered nurses Terri Barton-Salinas and Gail Barton-Hay came up with a way to ensure healthcare providers could quickly differentiate between multiple IVs. Their color-coded system was patented in 2003.  

Neomi Bennett: Founder of Neo-Slip

While working as a community nurse in the UK, Neomi Bennett noticed that many of her patients had difficulty putting on their compression socks, and therefore would avoid wearing them. As a result, she was inspired to invent a special type of anti-friction device that helped the socks slip on easily. She called her invention Neo-slip. Neo-slip has since been used widely and is credited with preventing many cases of deep vein thrombosis, or DVT.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke: Advocate for Veterans


As a Civil War nurse, Mary Anne Bickerdyke earned the endearing nickname “Mother Bickerdyke” from the soldiers in her care. During her years of service, Bickerdyke took note of the deplorable conditions of military hospitals and was inspired to become a staunch advocate for veterans. After the war ended, she continued to work on behalf of veterans, even becoming a lawyer in order to assist with pensions and other legal issues that affected the veteran population. Bickerdyke has had statues erected in her honor, and a hospital ship was named after her in recognition of her work and achievements on behalf of the United States military.

Florence Guinness Blake: Advocate for Advanced Nursing Education Programs


Florence Guinness Blake worked as a pediatric nurse, but her most important contribution to the field lies in her advocacy for advanced nursing education programs. In addition to developing and directing the graduate pediatric nursing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Blake has authored several books on nursing practice, including the popular textbook, Essentials of Pediatrics. In 1996, Florence Guinness Blake was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.

Florence A. Blanchfield: “Little Colonel”


Nicknamed Little Colonel because of her short stature, Florence A. Blanchfield became the first female commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. Having received her nursing credentials in 1906, Blanchfield held many private nursing roles throughout her career, including nurse supervisor, nurse anesthetist, and nursing school director. When the First World War broke out, she was appointed a chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. Later, she was promoted to superintendent of the organization. At the time of her death, Florence A. Blanchfield received full military honors and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Edith Cavell: Nurse Martyr


A British nurse during World War I, Edith Cavell is known for helping soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Because of her indiscriminate desire to help everyone in need (regardless of nationality), she was executed for treason. On the eve of her execution, she was quoted as saying, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Numerous memorials have been erected in Cavell’s honor throughout Europe and North America. 

Jane A. Delano: Nurse Coordinator


A relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jane A. Delano was influential in her own right. During her expansive career, she acted as superintendent of the United States Army Nurse Corps and president of the American Nurses Association. Perhaps most notably, she coordinated a large group of registered nurses and prepared them for the front lines of the American effort in the First World War. As a result, the Secretary of the Army awarded Delano the Distinguished Service Medal.  

Dorothea Dix: Activist for the Mentally Ill


Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War, Dorothea Dix devoted much of her life to advocating for better treatment of the mentally ill population. After witnessing the harsh treatment of mentally ill prisoners while teaching Sunday School at a correctional facility for women, Dix devoted herself to reforming the system. Her work led to the establishment of over 30 mental health institutions in the United States.

Anita Dorr: Crash Cart Creator

Anita Dorr is best-known for her development of the medical crash cart. While working in an ER, Dorr took note of the time it took for her colleagues to gather the equipment necessary to help a seriously ill patient. Thus, she sought to solve the problem by creating a ready-made cart that could hold all of the needed supplies. Originally called the “crisis cart,” Dorr’s prototype paved the way for the crash carts used in modern hospitals across the nation. Anita Dorr is also credited with establishing the first nurses association specifically for emergency room nurses.

Bessie Blount Griffin: Inventor/Physical Therapist


Bessie Blount Griffin is known for inventing an assistive device that allowed amputees to feed themselves. The invention was inspired by her physical therapy work with injured soldiers during the Second World War. The device was designed so that the patient would receive a single portion of food through a tube upon biting down on it. Bessie Blount Griffin once told a reporter she had proven that “a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”

Virginia Avenel Henderson: First Lady of Nursing


Often considered the Florence Nightingale of modern nursing, Virginia Avenel Henderson is known for her contribution to nursing theory. Helping to shape today’s nurse role, Henderson developed the Need Theory in nursing, the idea that a healthcare provider should promote a patient’s autonomy and ability to care for oneself.

Elizabeth Kenny: Physical Therapy Pioneer


A self-trained 20th-century Australian nurse, Elizabeth Kenny is known for her then-controversial method of polio treatment, which would come to be known as the “Kenny Method.” This method defied the traditional standard of treatment, which required immobilization by casts and braces, and used hot compresses and muscle movements instead. Kenny’s work is often regarded as the foundation for current physical therapy practices.

Virginia Lynch: Founder of Forensic Nursing

Frustrated with the limitations of the criminal justice system to help victims of sexual assault and violence, Virginia Lynch took it upon herself to bridge the gap between the healthcare system and law enforcement. In doing so, she founded a new nursing specialty that would come to be known as forensic nursing. Lynch spent thirty years of her career working with victims and helping to prosecute their perpetrators.

Mary Eliza Mahoney: First Licensed African American Nurse


Born to freed slaves, Mary Eliza Mahoney grew up knowing that she wanted to work in healthcare. Before becoming a nurse, she worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years, performing many different roles, including janitor, cook, and nurse’s aide. She graduated from nursing school in her early 30’s and became the first African American in the U.S. to become a licensed nurse. In 1976, Mahoney was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.

Anna Caroline Maxwell: Pioneering Nurse Leader

Sometimes referred to as the American Florence Nightingale, Anna Carolina Maxwell is credited with helping to establish the field of professional nursing in the U.S. During her illustrious career, she held several directorships and helped to establish the United States Army Nurse Corps. Upon her death, Maxwell received full military honors and was one of the first women to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Florence Nightingale: Mother of Modern Nursing


Perhaps the most famous nurse in history, at least in terms of name recognition, Florence Nightingale is often referred to as the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale began her career caring for soldiers during the Crimean War where her nightly rounds earned her the nickname, “Lady with the Lamp.” During her career as a military nurse, she kept careful records detailing her experience with patients and sought to improve treatment protocols, especially those involving proper sanitation and nutrition. Among her many accomplishments in the field, Nightingale is also credited with establishing the first formal training program for nurses—the Nightingale School of Nursing.

Linda Richards: First Professional Nurse in the U.S.


Linda Richards’ first experience with nursing involved taking care of her mother who was dying of tuberculosis. Though tragic, this experience inspired Richards to take up the occupation. After caring for her fiancé who was wounded in the Civil War, these aspirations were cemented. In 1872, she joined four other nurses in joining the very first professional training school for nurses at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. After graduation, she was hired as a nursing supervisor at Bellevue Hospital where she created a record-keeping system for patient data. The system became popular amongst hospitals throughout the U.S. and the U.K. In 1994, Linda Richards was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Sharon Rogone: Inventor of the Bili-Bonnet

Working as a neonatal nurse, Sharon Rogone identified the need for a suitable device to protect babies’ eyes as they underwent phototherapy for jaundice. Watching doctors fashion makeshift protective gear for these infants, Rogone was inspired to make something better. Thus, the Bili-Bonnet was born. The wearable protective apparatus includes tiny glasses held on by a cap, or “bonnet.” Rogone went on to create a line of products designed specifically for premature newborns.

Margaret Sanger: Advocate of Women’s Reproductive Rights


A nurse by profession as well as a staunch advocate for women’s reproductive rights, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, after which she was arrested for providing women with information about contraception. The incident sparked a national conversation about reproductive rights and abortion. Five years later, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which would later become known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1981, Margaret Sanger was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Marsha Siegel: Notable Nurse Practitioner

One of the more modern nurses in our ranking, Marsha Siegel became a nurse in the late 1970s. Siegal is known not only for her work in rural communities, but also for her activism for nurse practitioners in the United States. Notably, she was instrumental in giving NPs the authority to prescribe medication for their patients. In 2000, Healthcare for the Homeless named Siegel Volunteer NP of the Year.

Elise Sorenson: Inventor of the Colostomy Bag


Inspired by her sister who underwent an ostomy, Danish nurse Elise Sorenson created an apparatus that would allow patients to move around freely without fear that their surgical stoma might leak. The disposable bag, called an ostomy pouch, closely resembles modern colostomy bags.

Mabel Keaton Staupers: African American Nurse Activist


Mabel Keaton Staupers is credited not only for her work as a nurse, but also as an activist for civil rights. Not only did she organize and oversee medical clinics for African Americans, but she also advocated for the admission of black nurses into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. As a result of her efforts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded her the Spingarn Medal in 1951.

Lillian Wald: Public Health Advocate


Lillian Wald was born in Ohio, but she completed her nursing education in New York. A graduate of the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, Wald is known for spurring the public health movement in the United States, advocating for nurses in public schools and becoming the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing. In 1993, Wald was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Mary Walker: First Female Medal of Honor Recipient


A volunteer Civil War nurse, Mary Walker is best known for being the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor. Walker received surgical training as well and during the war, she was appointed “acting assistant surgeon.” She also supervised an orphanage as well as a hospital for female prisoners. In 1865, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service for her wartime work.

Sister Jean Ward: Phototherapy for Neonatal Jaundice

While caring for jaundiced infants in a neonatal facility in England, Sister Jean Ward noticed that the babies in her care improved after periods of time spent outside. She hypothesized that sunlight was a viable treatment for newborn jaundice and shared this theory with the doctors she worked with. Soon after, it was proven that exposure to light (aka phototherapy) did, in fact, help to reverse the condition. The treatment is now standard protocol in neonatal care facilities across the world.

Faye Wattleton: First African American President of Planned Parenthood

While pursuing her master’s degree in nursing with a specialty in maternal and infant care during the 1960s, Faye Wattleton interned at a Harlem hospital. There, she witnessed the horrors women experienced after having unsafe abortions. As her career in the field continued, Wattleton also saw the devastating effects of unwanted pregnancies on young girls. She was inspired to become an advocate of reproductive rights, eventually becoming the first African American President of Planned Parenthood. Her work as president of the organization changed it significantly, making it a more influential political force and increasing its healthcare offerings.

Inspired? Think you have what it takes to become an influential nurse like the ones listed above? Get more information about the numerous healthcare and nursing degree programs available as well as rankings of specific nursing schools and their offerings.

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