Six pioneering nurses to celebrate International Nurses Day

These six pioneers helped change healthcare, but the dedication and clinical expertise of every single nurse is vital, whether they are famous or not.

Six pioneering nurses to celebrate International Nurses Day

12th May is International Nurses Day - a worldwide celebration of the vital contribution that nurses make to society. We’re sure you’ll agree that there’s a lot worth celebrating there, and this year we thought we’d highlight a few pioneering nurses who all changed healthcare in their own way.

It’s probably important to start by stating what is (hopefully) obvious - the nurses on this list are more well-known than the average nurse, but healthcare relies on the dedication and clinical expertise of every nurse. They all deserve to be not just celebrated, but appreciated, every day of the year. We hope this list inspires you to find out more about International Nurses Day, and the many ways nurses contribute to health services around the world.

Why is International Nurses Day on May 12?

This is a good introduction to one of the nurses on our list - Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). She is probably more synonymous with nursing than anyone else, and May 12 is the anniversary of her birth.


Florence Nightingale

From 1860 onward, she laid the foundations of modern nursing with the processes she set up whilst caring for patients. She worked tirelessly to save those injured in the Crimean War. In 1883, she was awarded the prestigious Royal Red Cross and continues to be known as the “Lady with the Lamp” for the care she gave to all the wounded soldiers.


Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) is another nurse who was involved in helping wounded soldiers in Crimea - and she travelled there at her own expense. She provided accommodation, food, medicines and care to soldiers and became a well-known fixture even at the frontlines. Mary was born in 1805 in Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a mixed-race boarding house proprietress. She was a self-taught nurse, learning to heal and care while operating her own boarding house. Her work in Crimea left her in debt, but after a public appeal she was given financial assistance in recognition of her care.


Edith Cavel

Edith Cavel (1865-1915) was a nurse who became famous for her daring wartime work, for which she was executed to much international outrage. In 1907 she took up a post as director of a nurses’ training school in Brussels. She did much to change the image of nursing in Belgium, from something carried out by religious orders to a respectable profession requiring formal training. After war broke out, Cavel became involved in an organisation that smuggled Allied prisoners out of Belgium. She was arrested in August 1915, and condemned to death just two months later.


Dame Sarah Swift

Sarah Swift (1854-1937) helped to change perceptions about nursing and establish it as a respected profession. Having become concerned about the working conditions and pensions of nurses, she helped to set up pension funds and professional associations. During the First World War she came out of retirement to assist in the war effort, responsible for the selection and training of nurses, and inspections of hospitals. She set up the College of Nursing in 1916 initially to professionalise nurse training, based on her war experience, and gradually the College became more of a professional association, before being recognised with a royal charter in 1928.


Trevor Clay

Trevor Clay (1936-1994) was a pioneering male nurse who overcame health difficulties to set a number of firsts for men in the profession. When he started his nurse training in 1954 very few men entered the profession. He became increasingly politically active after joining the Royal College of Nursing in 1960 as soon as men were admitted. He became its first male general secretary in 1982, and helped to massively increase awareness with a busy schedule of media appearances and campaigns, despite having been diagnosed with emphysema in the 1970s.


Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth (1935-2011) was a nurse, midwife, and author who helped spread awareness about Midwifery through her popular memoirs. Having qualified as a nurse in the 1950s, she then trained to become a midwife, and worked in the impoverished area of Poplar, east London. It was these experiences that she later published in her memoirs, Call the Midwife. Later turned into a hugely popular BBC drama, her book was one of the first to record the realities of being a midwife.

Related articles

Book your consultation with one of our specialists