March is Women’s History Month, a time to commemorate and celebrate the vital role of women in American history. To mark the occasion, let’s observe influential women in nursing and midwifery who have made or are continuing to make a lasting impact.
Beverly Malone (1948 - Present)
Dr. Beverly Malone is a distinguished leader in nursing education, administration, policy, and clinical practice. Born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Dr. Malone serves as CEO of the National League for Nursing. She has made significant contributions to advancing the science of nursing education, promoting collaboration among stakeholders, increasing diversity in nursing and nursing education, and championing evidence-based practice. Dr. Malone's impressive career includes serving as Federal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health under President Bill Clinton, two terms as president of the American Nurses Association (ANA), and as the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Malone has received numerous awards and honors, including over 20 honorary doctorates, the Nursing Outlook Excellence in Research Award, and the Gail L. Warden Leadership Excellence Award. She has been named one of the 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives and 70 African American Leaders in Healthcare to Know by Modern Healthcare, and has been recognized by Becker's Hospital Review and the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses. Dr. Malone has also contributed to policy-making by serving on the Minority Health Federal Advisory Committee and as a reviewer for the Institute of Medicine's groundbreaking report, "The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health."
Dr. Malone remains committed to promoting nursing education and addressing the shortage of nurses, regularly offering her expertise and testimony to congressional leaders and policymakers. She currently serves as Vice Chair at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) Board of Directors, co-leads the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Health Professional Education and Communication Working Group, and is a member of ecoAmerica's Leadership Circle Executive Committee, among other roles.
Loretta C. Ford (1920 - Present)
An internationally-revered leader in nursing, Dr. Loretta Ford has proven to be an innovator throughout her career as a nurse and educator. Dr. Ford, in collaboration with Dr. Henry Silver at the University of Colorado, founded the first Nurse Practitioner Program in 1965. The Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Program focused on well-child care in community settings, reflecting Dr. Ford's expertise in public health and Dr. Silver's experience as a Professor of Pediatrics. Dr. Ford moved to the University of Rochester in 1972, where she founded the university’s School of Nursing and led a "Unification model in Nursing" at the Medical Center. She believed educators should work at the bedside while teaching and identifying research opportunities. Dr. Ford has authored over 200 publications and presentations on the history of the Nurse Practitioner, Unification of Practice, Education and Research, and Issues in Advanced Nursing Practice and Health Care.
Dr. Ford's model of Advanced Nursing Practice has expanded into many fields of nursing, with over 355,000 nurse practitioners licensed in the U.S. in 2022. She has served as a visiting professor and keynote speaker at nursing schools in the U.S. and abroad. Dr. Ford has earned multiple honorary doctorates and awards, including the Gustav O. Lienhard award from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and the Living Legend Award from the American Academy of Nursing. Currently, Dr. Ford consults and lectures on the history of the Nurse Practitioner and issues in Advanced Nursing Practice and Health Care Policy.
Virginia Sneed Dixon (1919 - 2021)
Virginia Sneed Dixon was an Indigenous American who displayed heroism in both the military and healthcare field. She was a Cherokee nurse who joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II. Despite facing racial discrimination, she volunteered for overseas duty in both World War II and the Korean conflict. Dixon became the first Cherokee nurse to serve overseas in WWII, where she was assigned to a field hospital on the Burma Road in China. She then volunteered for a dangerous assignment working for the 8063rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near Korea’s demilitarized zone, where she provided emergency care for soldiers with brain and spinal cord injuries until they could be transported to a hospital.
After returning to the U.S., Dixon married in 1953 and raised her children. She later returned to work as a nurse at a rehabilitation center in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Dixon died in 2021 at the North Carolina State Veterans Home in Black Mountain.
Henrieta Villaescusa (1920 - 2005)
Henrieta Villaescusa was a trailblazing Hispanic nurse who was defined as being a “first” in so many important positions. Earning her Bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College and her Master’s degree from UCLA, Villaescusa went on to become the only Hispanic Public Health Supervisor at the time of her employment at the Los Angeles Public Health Department. During her long and varied career, she served as the first Hispanic Health Administrator in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the first Mexican American Chief Nurse Consultant in the Office of Maternal & Child Health, Bureau of Community Health Services, where she identified needs, trends, and priorities in nursing research and training. She also worked for California congressmen George Miller and Edward Roybal.
Villaescusa was a social justice advocate, developing health policies on the local, state, national, and international level. She also advocated for the role of nurses in health policies and partnerships. She was associated with many organizations, including the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organization and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, where she served as president from 1984 to 1988. Villaescusa died in 2005, leaving behind a legacy of advocacy and innovation.
Margaret Charles Smith (1906 - 2004)
Margaret Charles Smith was a midwife who dedicated her life to delivering babies and caring for mothers in rural Alabama. Raised by her grandmother, Margaret Charles, who was a former slave, Smith unexpectedly began her career as a midwife at just five years old when she caught an early arriving baby. Despite completing only the third grade in a one-room rural grammar school, Smith never stopped learning and continued to read and study throughout her life. In 1949, she obtained a permit from the Greene County Public Health Team to practice midwifery, becoming one of the first official midwives in Greene County, Alabama.
As a Black midwife in rural Alabama during the time of segregation, Smith faced many challenges. She often had to make her way through fields and wade through water to deliver babies, and the mothers she attended were often malnourished and overworked. Despite the difficulties, Smith delivered over 3,500 babies and never lost a mother, losing very few babies. In 1976, Alabama passed a law outlawing midwives, and Smith and about 150 other Black traditional midwives were told they would be jailed if they continued to work as midwives. Despite the law, Smith continued to attend to mothers and babies in need until her retirement.
Smith's dedication to midwifery earned her numerous honors and recognition throughout her life. She became the first Black American to be given the keys to Eutaw, Alabama, her hometown, in 1983. In 1996, she co-authored a book with Linda Janet Holmes entitled Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife. She was also the keynote speaker at the New Orleans Rural Health Initiative in 1997, and in 2003, she was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. Smith died in 2004 at the age of 98 in Eutaw.
Estelle Massey Osborne (1901 - 1981)
A significant force in the nursing profession in the 20th Century, Estelle Massey Osborne broke down racial barriers throughout her successful career. Born in the small town of Palestine, Texas, Osborne became the first Black nurse to receive a Master’s Degree when she graduated from Columbia University in 1931. While studying, Osborne taught at two nursing schools, including as the first Black instructor at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She later served as the first Black superintendent of nurses at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, which was the largest exclusively Black, city-operated general hospital in the world.
During World War II, Osborne served as a consultant to the Coordinating Committee on Negro Nursing for the National Council for War Service. Through this role, she was influential in expanding the number of nursing schools that accepted Black students and convincing the U.S. Navy to lift its color ban in 1945. After the war, Osborne served in several national leadership capacities, including the ANA Board of Directors, the National League for Nursing, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Urban League and more. Osborne died in 1980 at the age of 80.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 - 1926)
Noted for being the first Black licensed nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney was not only a healthcare professional but also a champion for women’s rights and racial equality. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Mahoney was raised in a family that emphasized education, and she attended the Phillips School, one of the first integrated schools in the country. After completing her education, Mahoney began working with New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was notable for having an all-women staff of physicians. She took on a variety of roles at the hospital, including janitor, cook, washer women and nurse’s aid. In 1878, Mahoney was accepted into the hospital’s nursing program, and she graduated one year later.
After graduation, Mahoney worked for several years as a private-duty nurse before serving as the director of the Howard Colored Orphanage Asylum in Kings Park, Long Island in New York City in 1911. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908 and served as the national chaplain of the organization. After retirement, Mahoney continued to be a champion for women’s rights and racial equality, and was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Mahoney died in 1926 at the age of 80.
Florence Nightingale (1820 - 1910)
Considered the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale’s work in nursing, statistics and social reform have had a profound impact on healthcare over a century after her death. Born into an affluent British family, Nightingale’s early work in philanthropy inspired her to take on a career in nursing. Despite her parents' expectations that she would marry and lead a conventional life in Victorian England, Nightingale was determined to become a nurse and devote her life to serving others. She received training as a nurse in Germany and later worked in hospitals in London, where she quickly gained a reputation as an expert in her field.
Nightingale came to prominence during the Crimean War, during which she was tasked with leading a corps of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers at a British base hospital in Constantinople. Nightingale immediately set to work, organizing the hospitals, training the staff, and implementing sanitary measures. Her efforts resulted in a significant decrease in the mortality rate among wounded soldiers, and she became known as the "Lady with the Lamp" for her nightly rounds to check on patients. Nightingale's work in the Crimea transformed the way nursing was perceived and taught, and she became a prominent advocate for healthcare reform.
In 1860, Nightingale funded the establishment of St. Thomas’ Hospital, and within it, the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. By the time she was 38, Nightingale was permanently bedridden due to an illness she contracted in Crimea. Despite this, she remained an authority and advocate of health care reform and in 1859, she published Notes on Hospitals, which focused on proper protocols for operating civilian hospitals. Nightingale died in her London home in 1910 at the age of 90.
Mary Seacole (1805 - 1881)
A Jamaican nurse and businesswoman, Mary Seacole is remembered as a pioneering figure in healthcare and as a celebrated adventurer. Born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole learned about herbal medicine and nursing from her mother, who was a user of traditional herbal remedies. She later set up a boarding house in Panama, where she provided care to travelers who were sick or injured, including those who suffered from a massive cholera outbreak.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, Seacole traveled to England with the aim of volunteering as a nurse, but was rejected by officials. Undeterred, Seacole decided to fund her own trip to the Crimea, where she established the British Hotel, which served as an all-in-one store and restaurant for officers and canteen for soldiers. After hostilities ceased, Seacole visited the battlefield to help wounded soldiers and in some cases, comfort the dying.
At the end of the war, Seacole moved to England and wrote the highly-successful Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which was one of the first travel memoirs ever published by a Black woman.
Seacole died in London in 1881 at the age of 76. Her work earned her the respect and admiration of many soldiers and officers, and her memory has been honored through many posthumous awards and dedications both in Jamaica and the United Kingdom.
Both midwifery and nursing are professions in which women have been at the forefront, including many women who are associated with the history of FNU. Meet some of FNU’s female leaders in the blogs below.
- FNU Celebrates Women’s History Month with FNU History Faculty Expert, Dr. Anne Cockerham
- Women’s History Month Q&A with Dr. Joan Slager, Dean of Nursing
- Women’s History Month Q&A with Dr. Paula Alexander-Delpech, PhD, APRN, PMHNP-BC Interim Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
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