A collage of nurses used to celebrate Women's History Month 2024.

Our nation celebrates Women's History Month every March, honoring the achievements strong, determined women have made throughout American history.

With this year's theme focusing on women who advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion, we're giving a special shoutout to contemporary healthcare trailblazers who embody diversity in nursing by challenging racial injustice, breaking gender stereotypes, and promoting professional equity.

9 Contemporary Healthcare Trailblazers

While the names of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, and Mary Eliza Mahoney echo through nursing history, it's time to spotlight the modern heroines who challenged conventions to reshape the narrative of what it means to be a healthcare professional today.

1. Dr. Faye Glenn Abdellah, Nurse Research Pioneer (1919-2017)

Born in 1919 to a father of Algerian heritage and a Scottish mother, Dr. Faye Glenn Abdellah stands as an indomitable force in healthcare, reshaping the landscape of nursing theory, care, and education via scientific research.

She broke barriers and set precedents during her impressive 40-year career with the U.S. Public Health Service, becoming Chief Nurse Officer and the first nurse to hold the rank of a two-star Flag Officer. She continued to shatter glass ceilings as the first nurse and woman to hold the position of Deputy Surgeon General.

But her impact transcends titles and accolades. Dr. Abdellah's prolific research, encapsulated in more than 150 publications, includes the 21 Nursing Problems Theory that shifts the focus of nursing from a disease-centered approach to a patient-centered paradigm. Her visionary approach extended beyond individual patient care, encompassing families and older populations.

Dr. Abdellah also laid the foundation for the Patient Assessment of Care Evaluation (PACE), a cornerstone still integral to healthcare practices in the United States.

Upon retiring from the U.S. Public Health Service, her commitment to nursing excellence endured.

She founded the Graduate School of Nursing at the Uniformed Services University of Health, assuming the role of its inaugural dean.

Sources: National Women's Hall of Fame, Nurseslabs

2. Major Della Hayden Raney, Military Healthcare Leadership (1912-1987)

Della Hayden Raney was a true trailblazer, weaving a narrative of courage, determination, and resilience during her remarkable service in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) amid the tumult of World War II.

In a pivotal moment of history, Raney fearlessly challenged the status quo, becoming the first African American to break through the barriers of the American Red Cross and secure acceptance into the esteemed Army Nurse Corps. Her second lieutenant commission marked a personal triumph and a historic stride towards inclusivity and diversity.

Deployed to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Raney's journey of excellence continued as she surpassed the chief nurse exam, ascending to the rank of first lieutenant. Her odyssey led her to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, where she assumed the role of principal chief nurse, overseeing up to 20 nurses. The pages of history turned again as Raney shattered another glass ceiling, becoming the first African American nurse to attain the rank of captain while serving as chief nurse at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

Post-war, Raney's commitment to service remained unwavering as she held the rank of major, leaving an indelible mark on various Army bases across the United States and completing a tour in Japan. Her military prowess was duly recognized with a string of accolades, including the Army Corps Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and the WWII Victory Medal, each a testament to her dedication and contributions to the nation's defense.

During a time when her care was limited to Black service members, Raney's career served as a guiding light for diversity in the military. Her legacy reverberates through the corridors of progress, exemplified by the National Black Nurses Association's scholarship awarded in her name.

Sources: Army Women's Foundation, National Museum United States Army

3. Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown, Military Healthcare Leadership (1927-2011)

Hazel Johnson-Brown's journey is a testament to unyielding determination and resilience in adversity. Denied entry to a local nursing school due to her race, she defied the limitations imposed by discrimination by moving from Pennsylvania to New York to attend the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing.

Graduating in 1950, she embarked on a career marked by extraordinary achievements. From the frenetic pace of the emergency room to managing a cardiovascular ward, her commitment to nursing excellence was unwavering.

She took her skills to new heights, joining the Army Nurse Corps in 1955. Rising through the ranks, she discovered a passion for education and attended Columbia University Teachers College to earn a Master of Science in Nursing Education. Her dedication led her to train nurses for the challenges of Vietnam, where her impact was felt in operating rooms and combat medical tents.

The turning point came in 1973 when she pursued a Doctor of Philosophy in Education Administration, sponsored by the Army. Amidst her studies, she assumed the role of Director and Assistant Dean of Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. In 1979, Johnson-Brown made history when she became the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, the third female general, and the first Black female general in the Army.

White nurses outnumbered Black nurses 12 to one in the United States during this period. So, Johnson-Brown used her role and influence to improve equality in the ANC, developing scholarships for Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) nurses and encouraging enlistment via summer nursing clinical camps for cadets.

Like Major Della Hayden Raney, who helped pave the way for her, Johnson-Brown is a nursing pioneer who built bridges for future generations of ANC nurses.

Sources: Army Women's Foundation, National Museum United States Army

4. Patricia D. Horoho, Nurse Pioneer in Healthcare System Improvement (1963-Present)

Patricia D. Horoho stands as a model of leadership, breaking barriers and reshaping the landscape of healthcare and military service.

With a distinguished 33-year career in the U.S. Army, she retired as Lieutenant General, leaving an indelible mark as the 43rd Army Surgeon General and Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command. Notably, she achieved a trifecta of "firsts" as the initial female, first nurse, and first non-physician to hold these prestigious posts.

At the helm of the third largest healthcare system globally, encompassing a vast network of logistics, research, and care, and more than 156,000 staff members, Horoho's visionary leadership transcended traditional paradigms, ushering in a transformative shift from a disease-centered to a health-centered care model within the entire Army medicine organization.

As the current CEO of OptumServe, Horoho continues to leave an indomitable imprint on the healthcare landscape. Her expertise in healthcare transformation has impacted the military sphere and reverberated across the broader healthcare industry.

Sources: AUSA, Gary Sinise Foundation

5. Dr. Loretta C. Ford, Nurse Practitioner Impact (1920-Present)

In the tapestry of nursing history, Loretta Ford emerges as a living legend at 103, a venerable force whose spirit has left an indelible mark on the nurse practitioner profession. A World War II Veteran and an internationally acclaimed nursing leader, Ford embodies trailblazing achievements.

In 1965, Ford, in collaboration with pediatrician Henry K. Silver, etched her name into the annals of nursing by co-founding the nurse practitioner profession and helping birth the first pediatric nurse program in the United States, hosted by the University of Colorado. With visionary foresight, Ford's program revolutionized healthcare by incorporating social, psychological, environmental, and economic factors, addressing the holistic needs of patients in Colorado's rural landscapes.

The success of this pioneering program resonated nationally, prompting the University of Rochester School of Nursing to recruit Ford as the founding dean of its nurse practitioner program. In this role, Ford continued to shape the trajectory of nursing education, leaving an enduring legacy that transcends borders.

Hailed as the "mother of nurse practitioners," Ford challenged the status quo and fearlessly navigated the professional landscape, breaking down barriers and paving the way for more than 355,000 licensed nurse practitioners today. Her visionary leadership has made healthcare accessible to multitudes, especially those in underserved areas lacking sufficient physician support.

Sources: VA.gov, University of Rochester

6. Rose Lim Luey, Immigrant Healthcare Advocate (1929-2019)

Rose Lim Luey's legacy is one of cultural competence, empathy, and tireless dedication. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, her journey in nursing began in 1951, marking her as one of the first Chinese American graduates from the Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing.

Over her remarkable 65-year career, Luey donned various hats, each a testament to her commitment to healthcare excellence. From her role as a bilingual public health nurse with Alameda County Health Care Services to being a founding member of Asian Health Services, Luey demonstrated an unwavering dedication to serving diverse communities.

Luey's understanding of the challenges immigrant families face in the American healthcare system was a driving force in her career. After the Vietnam War, she stood at the Oakland airport, extending a compassionate hand to the first Vietnamese arrivals. In these moments, Luey facilitated their healthcare and became a bridge for those traumatized and unable to communicate in English.

Her bilingual approach went beyond mere medical treatment. She forged meaningful connections by providing healthcare in a language familiar to these individuals, fostering a sense of trust and understanding. In doing so, Luey elevated the quality of care for those navigating the complexities of a new life on American soil.

Sources: Samuel Merrit University, Medium

7. Dr. Ann C. Wolbert Burgess, Pioneer in Mental Health Nursing (1936-Present)

Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess is an internationally recognized nurse pioneer in the assessment and treatment of trauma and abuse victims. In 2017, the American Academy of Nursing named her a Living Legend.

Currently a distinguished professor at Boston College Connell School of Nursing, her journey is a narrative of groundbreaking contributions that have redefined the landscape of victim support.

Burgess's legacy took root with co-founding one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital. As a researcher, her focus on assessing and treating victims of rape became a cornerstone of her impactful career.

Collaborating with the FBI, she delved into the intricate links between child abuse, juvenile offenders, and serial criminals, a venture immortalized in the popular show Mindhunter, where she inspired the character Dr. Wendy Carr.

Burgess's intellectual footprint extends far beyond the classroom. Her commitment to justice and understanding is the driving force of her present research involving elder abuse in long-term care homes and the insidious realms of internet-based sex crimes and cyberstalking.

Source: Boston College Connell School of Nursing

8. Margo M. McCaffery, Nurse Pioneer in Pain Management (1939-2018)

The impact Margo McCaffery made in pain management is nothing short of revolutionary—a seismic shift that transformed how we understand and address the experience of pain.

Before McCaffery, nurses and caregivers determined if—and how much—a patient felt pain. But this all changed in 1968 when she shattered conventional norms with a simple yet profound redefinition of pain: “It's whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever and wherever the person says it does.”

This declaration acknowledged the profoundly personal nature of pain and paved the way for a patient-centric approach, placing the individual's voice at the forefront of their medical narrative.

Her visionary spirit extended to championing patient-reported models, introducing the 0-10 pain scale—a tool now ubiquitously utilized in healthcare practice. McCaffery empowered nurses to transcend intuition and unscientific clinical experience, urging them to embrace evidence-based pain management as the new standard.

She also championed patient-reported models addressing pain, including the 0-10 scale commonly used today in healthcare practice. But at the heart of her legacy is the co-authorship of the first comprehensive pain management textbook, a cornerstone that fortified the foundation of modern pain care.

She empowered nurses to provide evidence-based pain management instead of using their intuition or unscientific clinical experience. Margo McCaffery co-authored the first comprehensive pain management textbook and left a legacy of providing adequate pain management for chronic and acute pain.

Sources: Pain Management Nursing, ONSVoice

9. Lauren A. Underwood, Congressional Advocacy in Healthcare (1986-Present)

Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse with a trailblazing spirit, is a transformative force in the hallowed halls of Congress.

Currently representing the 14th district of Illinois, she etched her name in history as the first woman, the first person of color, and the first millennial to advocate for her community on Capitol Hill.

Beyond breaking barriers, Underwood is a beacon of change as the co-founder and co-chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Her unwavering commitment to ending disparities in maternal health for Black women is revolutionary.

Her presence in Congress is a testament to the transformative power of diverse voices in shaping policies that resonate with the nation's heartbeat.

Source: Underwood.House.Gov

Women in Healthcare 2024

As you can see, these trailblazers weaved a tapestry of change (with some still going strong in 2024), setting new standards that transcend gender biases and champion inclusivity for women in healthcare.

Their accomplishments resonate far beyond the confines of hospital walls, influencing the very fabric of how you and your fellow nurses practice the profession today.

As we celebrate these unsung heroes as part of Women's History Month 2024, let their stories echo through the corridors of nursing history, reminding us that the spirit of innovation and advocacy is alive and thriving in the hearts of those who challenge the status quo.

In their footsteps, a new generation of nurses emerges, inspired, and empowered to continue the transformative journey towards a more equitable, diverse, and progressive healthcare landscape.

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