Celebrating National Nurses Day this year has special significance, after the amazing contributions and sacrifices of nurses across the country during an unprecedented time. National Nurses Day is at the end of National Nurses Week, which begins each year on May 6 and goes through May 12—Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

This year’s theme for National Nurses Day is #WeAnswerTheCall. With a global pandemic and hospitals experiencing stress like never before, nurses have truly risen to the occasion over the last year in a way that will be remembered as part of history. 

To celebrate the incredible history of nursing, we take a look back at the contributions of five amazing nurses and how they have impacted the healthcare world of today:

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is considered the founder of modern nursing—essentially creating the profession as we know it today through her amazing life’s work. Florence Nightingale lived from 1820 to 1910 and began her life as a student at the Institute of St. Vincent de Paul. She developed her expertise as a nurse during the Crimean War and built upon her experiences working in hospitals across Europe in the years to follow.

Florence Nightingale is most well known for her work compiling data on how disease is spread. Nightingale used her data to develop statistical models to predict the spread of contagious diseases, invented hygienic items such as surgical caps, and promoted handwashing as a standard in hospitals everywhere. It goes without saying as we battle a highly contagious pandemic how important these hygienic practices remain in the world of healthcare today.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton was an American nurse who gained experience doing life-saving work during the Civil War. As a brave battlefield nurse, she risked her life bringing wounded soldiers medical supplies and became known as the Angel of the Battlefield.

After the war, Clara Barton used what she learned to found the American Red Cross. This organization continues to exist today as a provider of medical supplies in war zones, responders to natural disasters, and a hub of ongoing volunteer-run blood drives hospitals rely on.

The American Red Cross has been able to coordinate many important projects throughout the pandemic, including vaccination drives, food drives to help alleviate economic hardship, and medical supply donations.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born a slave but freed herself as an adult and spent her life fighting for the freedom of all Black Americans. She traveled the country to deliver a series of speeches on abolition and women’s rights, secured the freedom of many individuals who had formerly been slaves, and changed the minds of thousands with her moving words on abolition, racial equality and women’s rights. 

Sojourner Truth had an impressive career as a public advocate, but she also served as a nurse during the Civil War. She also enlisted Black soldiers to fight for the Union and worked as a nurse and public advocate at government refugee camps and at the National Freedman’s Relief Foundation after the war. 

Mary Breckinridge 

Mary Breckinridge was a pioneer of healthcare in rural areas. She famously traveled as a nurse midwife to women far in the Appalachian mountains, sometimes riding on horseback for days to reach remote locations, to save lives.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Mary Breckinridge served as the medical director of a district in Washington D.C. Using this experience and her passion for midwifery, Breckinridge later became a tireless advocate of healthcare access for everyone. By traveling into the rural Appalachian mountains to provide midwifery and healthcare, Brecikinridge was influential in expanding medical access to underserved populations.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix began her career as a nurse, but became most well known for her public health advocacy for the mentally ill. She fought before the U.S. Congress to improve living conditions in mental institutions and was able to successfully challenge some of the most inhumane laws in existence at the time.

Over the past few years, rates of mental illness in the U.S. have gone up and the pandemic has added to high rates of depression and anxiety. With a mental health crisis continuing in the U.S., awareness about mental health and recognition for the hard work mental health care workers do—including nurses—has never been more important.