Nursing Historical Background & Timeline

Snapshot: This article reviews nursing’s historical background, and includes quotes about nursing and a timeline of nursing history.

Jump to:

What Is Nursing? Historical Overview Historical Timeline

What is Nursing?

“Nursing is the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities, prevention of illness and injury, alleviation of suffering through the diagnosis and treatment of human response, and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, communities, and populations.”

– American Association of Nursing (ANA)

“Nursing encompasses autonomous and collaborative care of individuals of all ages, families, groups and communities, sick or well and in all settings. Nursing includes the promotion of health, prevention of illness, and the care of ill, disabled and dying people. Advocacy, promotion of a safe environment, research, participation in shaping health policy and in patient and health systems management, and education are also key nursing roles.”

– International Council of Nurses (ICN)

“A person who is trained to care for sick or injured people … one that looks after, fosters, or advises.

– Merriam Webster Dictionary

Historical Overview

  • The word “nurse” comes the Latin word “nutrica,” meaning “nurture” or “nourish.”
  • It’s been said that nursing is ‘an old art and a new profession.’ Countless individuals through human history have provided nursing care, but only in the past few hundred years has a formal body of nursing knowledge been codified and tested.
  • Healers and caregivers in all human societies throughout history have provided nursing care. While these caregivers have often been women charged with child-rearing and management of the home, in other societies nursing duties have been the responsibility of male tribesmen, shamans, or ‘medicine men.’ The definition of a “nurse” has varied historically according to local religious, gender, and societal norms.
  • Throughout much of human history, nurses (and the physicians with whom they worked) were informally trained, and nursing care was provided by religious agents, or in religious settings. Priests, nuns, and knights all provided nursing care of various kinds during the European Middle Ages. Religious authorities in non-Western societies have historically been charged with nursing duties too.
  • In the West, convicts and criminals also provided nursing care; nursing (and medical) standards were almost non-existent, and patients were often horribly mistreated. Society lacked knowledge of basic disease processes, the quality of care was poor, and mortality rates were very high.
  • Theodore Fliedner, a German Lutheran minister, opened the first formal nursing school in history, the Kaiserworth Deaconess Institute, in 1836 in Kaiserworth, Germany
  • More than any other person, Florence Nightengale revolutionalized and professionalized contemporary nursing.
  • Wars have often spurred innovations in nursing and medical care; from the U.S. Civil War, to the First and Second World Wars, to the Vietnam War and more recent conflicts in the Middle East, the demand for skilled nursing care in conflicts has encouraged advances, often in the midst of tragedy.
  • Today, nursing is a diverse and growing healthcare profession. In the U.S., there are currently over 2.7 million nurses with a wide range of ethnic, cultural and educational backgrounds.

Historical Timeline



380 The first general hospital is established in Rome by Fabiola
1633 The founding of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Servants of the Sick Poor by Sts.Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. The community would not remain in a convent, but would nurse the poor in their homes, “having no monastery but the homes of the sick, their cell a hired room, their chapel the parish church, their enclosure the streets of the city or wards of the hospital.”
1654 and 1656 Sisters of Charity care for the wounded on the battlefields at Sedan and Arras in France.
1645 Jeanne Mance establishes North America’s first hospital, l’Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, in the Canadian province of Quebec
1660 Over 40 houses of the Sisters of Charity exist in France and several in other countries; the sick poor are helped in their own dwellings in 26 parishes in Paris.
1783 James Derham, a slave from New Orleans, buys his freedom with money earned working as a nurse; he later becomes the first African American physician in the United States
1836 The Nursing Society of Philadelphia is formed. It is one of the first such metropolitan associations of its kind.
1844 Dorothea Dix testifies to the New Jersey state legislature regarding the poor treatment of patients suffering from mental illness
1844 Florence Nightengale travels to Kaiserworth, Germany to learn nursing from the Institution of Deaconnesses. She remains there for 3 months.
1854 Nightengale appointed as the Superintendent of Nursing Staff
1860 Nightengale publishes “Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not,” which becomes a seminal text
1860 Nightengale training school for nurses in England at St. Thomas’ Hospital is established
1861 – 1865 The American Army Nurses Corps is formed during the U.S. Civil War
1873 Linda Richards becomes America’s First Trained Nurse when she graduates from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses
1873 The nation’s first nursing school, based on Florence Nightengale’s principles of nursing, opens at Bellvevue Hospital in New York City
1879 Mary Elizabeth Mahoney becomes America’s first African American professional nurse when she graduates from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses
1881 Clara Barton becomes the first President of the American Red Cross, which she founded
1885 The first nurse training institute is established in Japan, due to the efforts of Linda Richards, the first professionally trained American nurse
1886 The Nightengale, the first American nursing journal, is published
1886 Spelman Seminary becomes the first nursing program in the United States established to admit African-Americans
1893 Lillian Wald, the founder of visiting nursing in the U.S., begins teaching a home class on nursing in the Lower East Side of New York City
1897 The American Nurses Association (ANA) holds its first meeting as the “Associated Alumnae of Trained Nurses of the United States and Canada”
1899 Japan establishes a licensing system for modern nursing professionals with the introduction of the “Midwives Ordinance”
1899 The International Council of Nurses is formed. It still exists today, and is a federation of more than 130 national nursing associations
1901 New Zealand becomes the first country to regulate nurses nationally, with the adoption of the Nurse Registration Act
1902 Ellen Dougherty of New Zealand becomes the world’s first Registered Nurse on February 10
1908 The United States Navy Nurse Corps is established. It is the first branch of the U.S. military to formally hire nurses to provide healthcare to American soldiers
1908 The Canadian National Association of Trained Nurses is formed; the organization will become the Canadian Nurses Association in 1911
1909 The American Red Cross Nursing Service is formed. It still exists today, performing vital charitable nursing services both domestically and internationally
1909 The University of Minnesota bestows the first Bachelors Degree of Nursing (BSN) in the United States
1910 Florence Nightengale dies in London. Her death is mourned, and she is recognized as the founder of modern nursing, both in Britain and around the world
1918 Frances Reed Elliot is enrolled as the first African American in the Red Cross Nursing Service
1923 The Yale School of Nursing becomes the first autonomous school of nursing in the United States with its own dean, faculty, budget, and degree meeting standards within Yale University. The curriculum is based on an educational plan rather than on hospital service needs.
1923 Mary Breckenridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, travels 700 miles on horseback surveying the health needs of rural Kentuckians. The Frontier Nursing Service operates to this day.
1951 The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses merges with the American Nurses Association. Although this marks a shift in professional nursing, many American nurses continue to work in racially segregated wards and workplaces until after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s
1951 The LPN/LVN category of nurses is created in the United States by the National Association for Practical Nurse Education, in conjunction with professional nursing associations and the U.S. Department of Education
1954 One of the first PhD programs in nursing is offered at the University of Pittsburgh. It continues to this day
1955 Elizabeth Lipford Kent becomes the first African American to earn a PhD in nursing
1956 The Columbia University School of Nursing is the first in the U.S. to grant a master’s degree in a clinical nursing specialty
1965 The Nurse Practitioner (NP) role is formed by a nurse educator and a physician at the University of Colorado. Over time, it becomes an increasingly popular and important segment of advanced nursing practice
1967 Dame Cicilely Saunders establishes the first hospice in a London suburb; two years later, in 1969, she is invited to be a guest speaker at the Yale School  of Nursing, by the School’s Dean, Florence Wald
1971 The hospice movement is established in the United States when Florence Wald and her associates found Hospice, Inc.
1976 The Nurses’ Health Study begins, and continues to this day. It is one of the largest and longest-running programs of health research anywhere, and has yielded valuable insights about the links between diet, lifestyle and disease prevention, among many other findings
1979 The first iteration of a clinical doctorate (ND) is established at Case Western Reserve University
1908s The MSN degree becomes the required degree for advanced practice nurse certification in the United States
1989 Nurses’ Health Study 2 begins. It is a continuation and expansion of the original Nurses’ Health Study, launched in 1976
1992 Eddie Bernice Johnson is the first nurse elected to the U.S. Congress
2004 The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that all advanced practice nurses early a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree
2010 Nurses’ Health Study 3 begins enrollment. It continues the groundbreaking health research first started by the original Nurses’ Health Study in 1976