40 Famous Nurses From History, Society and Pop Culture
Nurses are some of the most important healthcare professionals on the planet. They not only help treat injury and illness but also offer compassion to patients who desperately need it. Throughout history, countless nurses have worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. As such, dynamic characters have popped up in novels, on television, and in the movies.
Whether you are a nurse, an aspiring healthcare provider, or simply someone who appreciates the medical profession, there are some famous nurses from history, society, and pop culture you should know.
While the nurses in this list don’t appear in any specific order, here are 40 famous nurses you must meet.
Known as the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale was an English social reformer and nurse who lived from 1820 to 1910. Nightingale worked tirelessly treating soldiers during the Crimean War.
During this era, she became known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” carrying a lantern with her during the wee hours to tend to injured warriors. She also managed a team of nurses, conducting comprehensive training for everyone in her charge. During her lifetime, Nightingale wrote prolifically on a variety of topics but focused specifically on bedside manner and medical care.
Regardless of discipline, every medical professional today owes his or her career to the dedicated work of Florence Nightingale.
The “Angel of the Battlefield,” Clara Barton was a nurse during the American Civil War. Barton later started the American Red Cross, a lifeline for anyone going through a disaster.
As a nurse and activist, Barton developed a reputation for getting her hands dirty. By collecting supplies and organizing nurses during the darkest hours of American history, Barton has a well-earned place in the pantheon of nursing.
3. Major Margaret Houlihan (Fictional)
“M*A*S*H” is one of the most iconic television shows of all time. The series documented the chaos and heartbreak of treating wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
The heart of the show was Major Margaret Houlihan, played beautifully by Loretta Swit. In each episode, Major Houlihan showed compassion, ingenuity, and brilliance in treating soldiers. It isn’t difficult to see why Major Houlihan’s character is one of the most beloved fictional nurses of all time.
Nursing involves more than treating physical injuries. Some of the best nurses work with patients struggling with mental illness. Dorothea Dix was one of those nurses. The founder of the first-known mental hospital, Dix lived from 1802 to 1887. First working as a teacher, Dix advocated for the rights and treatment of the mentally impaired. Her success guaranteed funds and equipment to improve conditions for her patients.
When the American Civil War started, Dix worked as a superintendent of nurses, using her expertise to advocate for high-quality care for wounded soldiers. The contribution Dorothea Dix made to the field of psychological medicine is impossible to overstate. In fact, her efforts continue to make waves in the mental health community even today.
5. Nurse Hathaway (Fictional)
Medical dramas are commonplace on television today. One of the first, though, was the groundbreaking weekly series “E.R.” While the show focused on the personal and professional lives of a few doctors, Nurse Carol Hathaway quickly earned the hearts of viewers around the globe.
Played with finesse by Julianna Margulies, Nurse Hathaway presented the serious, competent and compassionate side of nursing. She also is responsible for some of the most memorable dialogue in the show. Meanwhile, Nurse Hathaway’s struggles with addiction, relationships and even a suicide attempt added a human element that ensured the critical acclaim of “E.R.”
6. Nurse Jackie (Fictional)
Where Nurse Hathaway left off, Nurse Jackie picked up on the eponymous Showtime series.
Played by Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie is a head nurse at a busy Chicago hospital. While she provides exceptional, no-nonsense care to her patients, Jackie fights personal battles over the course of the show’s seven-season run. While the ups and downs of Jackie’s addiction are often hard to watch, her passion for nursing and contempt for hospital red tape offer inspiration to nurses everywhere.
7. Hazel Johnson-Brown (Real)
A brigadier general in the United States Army, Hazel Johnson-Brown became the first African-American head of the Army Nurse Corps in 1979. Despite an initial nursing school rejection, Brigadier General Johnson-Brown completed a nursing program before joining the military.
After a distinguished career in the armed forces, Brigadier General Johnson-Brown entered academia and founded the Center for Health Policy at George Mason University in Virginia. Before her death in 2011, she served on the board of a variety of healthcare organizations in the Washington, D.C. area.
8. St. Camillus de Lellis (Real)
The patron saint of nurses, St. Camillus de Lellis, was one of the first nurses in history. Initially fighting as a soldier, St. Camillus battled a gambling addiction early in his life. Once he reined in his demons, St. Camillus became the director of a regional hospital.
During his service, St. Camillus worked with alcoholics and other addicts. Interestingly, despite living in the 16th century, St. Camillus started one of the first-known ambulance services. Even though he was ordained, St. Camillus eventually left the priesthood to continue his work as a nurse.
9. Kitty Forman (Fictional)
Playing the matriarch on “That ’70s Show,” actress Debra Jo Rupp worked her way into viewers’ hearts as Kitty Forman. While fans didn’t see Kitty at work often, they could easily realize how her delicate, loving personality would offer an unparalleled bedside manner. When one of the characters on the program sustained a silly injury, Kitty was always ready to offer a compassionate hand or bandage.
10. Nurse Ratched (Fictional)
While most of the nurses on this list are known for their high-quality, empathetic care, Nurse Ratched is not. The most-feared character in the acclaimed novel and film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ratched was played dynamically by Louise Fletcher. Her cold, tyrannical portrayal of a sadistic nurse earned Fletcher an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1975.
Mostly known as a poet and novelist, Walt Whitman was also a respected nurse. During the American Civil War, Whitman left his teaching and writing profession to treat soldiers on the battlefield. His nursing duties included visiting patients, administering medicine, treating wounds, and assisting surgeons. He also built prosthetic limbs for amputees following the war.
12. Edward T. Lyon (Real)
In 1952, Edward T. Lyon became the first male nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. As a nurse anesthesiologist, Lyon worked alongside more than 3,500 female nurses in the service. His trailblazing contribution is often credited as opening doors for men in the nursing profession.
13. Nurse McMurphy (Fictional)
Colleen McMurphy was a kind, compassionate and strong battle nurse on the television show “China Beach.” Played flawlessly by Dana Delaney, nurse McMurphy introduced viewers to the heartbreak and triumphs of providing triage care to wounded soldiers. While many nurses lauded Delaney’s realistic portrayal, she received industry acclaim with the 1980 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.
14. Madam Pomfrey (Fictional)
The “Harry Potter” series captured the imagination of an entire generation. While readers and viewers focused mainly on the three leading characters, they could not ignore the strength and kindness of Madam Pomfrey. The nurse’s tough, no-nonsense bedside manner and golden personality helps injured Hogwarts students return to their magical best.
15. Ruby Bradley (Real)
Colonel Ruby Bradley is one of the most decorated U.S. Army nurses in history. During her service in World War II and the Korean War, Colonel Bradley earned 34 bravery medals and commendations. The courage, passion, and drive of Colonel Bradley culminated in her retirement after more than three decades of military nursing service.
16. Annie Wilkes (Fictional)
Like the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, Annie Wilkes struck fear in the hearts of moviegoers in 1990. Played chillingly by Kathy Bates in the film adaptation of Steven King’s “Misery,” Annie Wilkes is a maternity nurse who holds a novelist captive. She also tortures the writer and showcases the misplaced motive of nursing him back to health. While Wilkes is not the sort of healthcare provider anyone should aspire to be, she is a compelling character capable of giving any reader a serious case of the jitters.
17. Greg Focker (Fictional)
In the film “Meet the Parents” and its subsequent sequels, Ben Stiller plays Greg Focker, a male nurse. While the movie doesn’t show the ins and outs of the nursing profession, it does call attention to the discrimination male nurses face in the female-dominated profession.
18. Helen Fairchild (Real)
World War I occurred before international treaties banned chemical weapons. Helen Fairchild was a nurse working at a Pennsylvania hospital when the war started. She quickly joined the frontline nursing unit, traveling to France to treat injured soldiers. Unfortunately, during a mustard gas attack, Fairchild sustained considerable internal injuries. Despite an operation to save her life, Fairchild died in 1918. Her courage and commitment to triage care continues to inspire nurses today
19. Christiane Reimann (Real)
Every year, the International Council of Nurses awards the prestigious Christiane Reimann award. This award is named after a Danish nurse who became the first full-time, paid leader of the organization. Reimann’s leadership encouraged nurses around the globe to organize for better working conditions and better care.
20. Susie Baker King Taylor (Real)
During the American Civil War, Susie Baker King Taylor became the first African-American nurse in the U.S. Army. Despite being born into slavery, Taylor learned nursing skills. Later, she wrote her memoirs, giving guidance to aspiring battle nurses everywhere.
21. Alyssa Ogawa (Fictional)
Nursing is a profession with deep roots. According to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” nursing is a field that will be around for generations. For seven seasons, Patti Yasutake brought Nurse Ogawa to life. On the Enterprise, the nurse dutifully assists Dr. Crusher. Her intelligence and sense of duty help the character solve complex problems.
22. Joe Hogan (Real)
Despite being an African-American man, Joe Hogan wanted to become a nurse in a profession dominated by white women. After being denied admission to nursing school at the Mississippi University for Women, Hogan sued. His efforts brought about the end of gender discrimination in public nursing programs.
23. Mary Breckinridge (Real)
Westward expansion was an exciting period in American history. Even though the frontier in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a wealth of opportunity, healthcare was scarce. Mary Breckinridge changed that. After earning her nursing certification, Breckinridge headed west to work as a midwife. There, she started the Frontier Nursing Service, offering low-cost care to patients. The organization reduced mortality rates while Breckinridge was still alive and continues to this day.
24. Margaret Sanger (Real)
Margaret Sanger became a nurse after concluding that her mother’s premature death was due to birthing too many children. After finishing nursing school, Sanger started an educational campaign that eventually became Planned Parenthood. Advocating for safe contraceptives throughout her career, Sanger made huge strides in healthcare for women and children.
25. Luther Christman (Real)
Luther Christman was a pioneer in nursing equality. Despite overcoming two gender-based denials to nursing school, Christman completed his education at the Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Even though he had the skills to work as a maternity nurse, Christman was later banned from rotations because he was a man. To combat discrimination, he started the National Male Nursing Association.
26. Edith Shain (Real)
While her name is not memorable to most, Nurse Edith Shain’s image is. On V-J Day, Shain stood in the middle of Times Square and kissed an American sailor. The image made it inside Life magazine and continues to be instantly recognizable today.
27. Catherine Barkley (Fictional)
Ernest Hemingway has a way with words. When he wanted to write a character to symbolize the perfect woman, he chose to create Nurse Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms.” The loving, sophisticated and free Barkley doesn’t only capture the interest of the protagonist in the novel, but she continues to be one of the most genuine characters ever written.
28. Elizabeth Grace Neill (Real)
In New Zealand at the turn of the 20th Century, Nurse Elizabeth Grace Neill worried about nursing malpractice. Therefore, after earning her nursing certification, Neill became an expert at medical technicalities and treatment. With a set of standards in mind, she started the System of Nursing Registration to protect patients and ensure nurses received continuing medical education.
29. Mabel Keaton Staupers (Real)
Racial boundaries kept many African-Americans out of the nursing profession. Mabel Keaton Staupers was an early advocate for minority nurses. During the Great Depression and World War II, Nurse Staupers embarked on a comprehensive outreach program, developing advocacy coalitions consisting of nurses and non-nurses alike. Her efforts were rewarded when African-American nurses were eventually admitted into the American Nursing Association. She was also instrumental in integrating the U.S. Army Nurses Corps.
30. Virginia Avenel Henderson (Real)
Nurse Virginia Avenel Henderson is known as the “First Lady of Nursing” for good reason. Henderson worked tirelessly to improve the nursing profession by boosting education, training, and research. Simply put, Henderson believed that nurses had an obligation to treat everyone, whether ailing or well. Today, it is impossible to get through nursing school without reading about Henderson’s forward-thinking theories.
31. Carla Espinosa (Fictional)
Played delightfully well by Judy Reyes on the hit sitcom “Scrubs,” Nurse Carla Espinosa was a strong, feisty Latina professional. An immigrant to the United States from the Dominican Republic, Espinosa served as the head nurse at the hospital. Her compassionate, no-nonsense approach to nursing kept doctors, nurses, administrators, and patients in line.
32. Helen Rosenthal (Fictional)
“St. Elsewhere” was a groundbreaking drama that aired in the 1980s. Actress Christina Pickles brought Nurse Helen Rosenthal to life. As head nurse, Rosenthal managed a finicky electronic records system at a time when many Americans had only primitive knowledge about computer systems. She also put a face on the family and work struggles that all nurses endure.
33. Russell Tranbarger (Real)
There have been hundreds of pioneers in the nursing profession. Russell Tranbarger is another worth mentioning. At a time when mostly women worked in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, Tranbarger secured a position as a surgical nurse. Later, Tranbarger served as a mentor for countless male nurses. His book, “Men in Nursing: Opportunities and Challenges,” is still considered a must-read for any man who wants to pursue a career in nursing. Tranbarger joined the ANA Hall of Fame in 2012.
34. Anna Caroline Maxwell (Real)
Nurse Anna Caroline Maxwell started the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. While Maxwell distinguished herself treating injured soldiers during the Spanish-American War, she is best known for her fight against communicable diseases. While measles, typhoid, malaria and other diseases were rampant, Maxwell lost only 67 patients during the incursion. She also developed a nursing program, helping to train thousands of nurses over a 30-year span.
35. James Derham (Real)
Even though he was born as an enslaved person, James Derham worked hard to learn medicine. After working as a nurse for several physicians, Derham bought his way out of slavery. He then launched his own medical practice, which earned him the distinction of being the first African-American physician in the United States.
36. Tribulation Periwinkle (Fictional)
Most know Louisa May Alcott as the talented writer of the classic novel “Little Women.” Even though she was already established as a writer, Alcott served as a nurse during the American Civil War. In between her duties, she wrote lengthy letters to relatives describing the experience. Later, she created Tribulation Periwinkle as a narrator-nurse in “Hospital Sketches.” While this work is slightly fictionalized, it essentially paints a picture of Alcott’s time serving in the nursing profession.
37. Mary Seacole (Real)
If history and society had not been racially segregated, Nurse Mary Seacole may have received as much acclaim as Clara Barton or Florence Nightingale. Instead, her contributions to nursing during the American Civil War were largely ignored until recently. Still, Seacole spent countless hours tending to injured soldiers and combatting the spread of disease in festering war camps. At the end of her career, Seacole wrote one of the earliest autobiographies from an African-American woman, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.” The work is a testament to determination, compassion, and curiosity.
38. Cherry Ames (Fictional)
The author Helen Wells created Cherry Ames, a nurse who solved hospital mysteries in a series of novels from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Throughout the novels, Ames goes from a student nurse to a professional. Without much help, Ames uncovers clues, identifies suspects, and solves mysteries. When Wells published her novels, she immediately introduced the world to an intelligent, strong heroine. Today, collectors scramble to find a first edition “Cherry Ames” or the same-named Parker Brothers game.
39. Theresa Brown (Real)
Theresa Brown is a world-famous clinical nurse, author, speaker, and columnist. In her many works, Brown educates readers about the intricacies of the nursing profession. Brown’s first book, “Critical Care,” discusses her experiences working as an oncological nurse.
As an advocate for compassionate and end-of-life care, Brown continues to contribute to the nursing profession through her lecture series. For good reason, the New York Times named Brown one of the top 10 voices in nursing.
40. Vernice Davis Anthony (Real)
The CEO of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, Vernice Davis Anthony is a nurse who has spent her entire professional life working with minority and other underserved populations. Davis’ outreach efforts and expertise in patient issues serve as a beacon for any medical professional who wants to improve the health and well-being of at-risk groups.
Every professional on this list contributed or continues to contribute to nursing in some regard. Remember, this is merely a list of influential nursing professionals and not a ranking. While this list is far from exhaustive, it includes some famous nurses and interesting characters that you should know. If you work or plan to work as a nurse, perhaps you can look to these famous nurses for guidance. If you merely respect the medical profession, maybe this list gives you a newfound appreciation for the hard, dedicated work nurses do every single day.