Anna Maxwell, the American Florence Nightingale

Profiles in Nursing

Anna Maxwell, the American Florence Nightingale

From academia to the battlefield, this was one heroic nurse

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Colleagues called her  the “American Florence Nightingale,” and in a sense she was. Dedicated to the advancement of nursing, Anna Caroline Maxwell was second to none in her determination that entrants to the profession be educated individuals, prepared to lead in hospitals and in their communities.

But Anna Maxwell was also her own woman and very much entitled to her own recognition. When she died in 1929 she certainly received the praise she deserved. Her obituary in the American Journal of Nursing, which she was instrumental in founding, names her pall bearers, and the list reads like a Who’s Who of nursing including: “Miss Nutting, Miss Goodrich, Miss Wald…Miss Mary Magoun Brown.” She seems to have been loved and admired by everyone, despite what some called “the imperious quality of her will.” The nation itself honored her. She never wore a uniform, but she was buried with full military honors for serving her country with singular distinction during wartime.

In 1876, Miss Maxwell entered the Training School of the Boston City Hospital, headed by Linda Richards, the first American nurse. Maxwell assumed the leadership of the Boston Training School for Nurses, affiliated with the Massachusetts General Hospital, in 1881 and in 1889 moved to St. Luke’s Hospital. In both cases her ability to teach the highest standards and develop confident and capable nurses led to the success of the schools.

After St. Luke’s, Maxwell established a program of nursing at the Presbyterian Hospital of New York City. She remained at the school for thirty years, presiding over its partnership with Teachers College, eventually Columbia University, and developed a five year program that awarded a nursing diploma and a Bachelor of Science degree. Her textbook, written with Amy Pope, Practical Nursing: a Textbook for Nurses and a Handbook for All Who Care for the Sick (1907) was a model work for years.

Her successes were not limited to academics. During the Spanish American War (1898), she took charge of the nurses sent to care for the soldiers at Camp Thomas in Chickamauga Park, Georgia. Fifty thousand men lived in deplorable conditions, teeming with the triple scourge of typhoid, malaria, and measles. Maxwell’s 160 nurses cared for a thousand sick men with only 67 deaths. This was at a time when more soldiers died of disease than combat. No wonder Florence Nightingale comes to mind.

Despite her accomplishment, Congress was reluctant to establish a regular nursing division for the military. Miss Maxwell, along with others, persisted; and in 1901 the Army Nurse Corps began. Not until 1920 did its members gain military rank; but again, Miss Maxwell led the effort. (She also designed the uniform.)

During World War I, through the Red Cross, Maxwell organized the nurses for the unit that Presbyterian Hospital supplied, and she visited facilities at three fronts. For her efforts, the French awarded her the Medaille de l’Hygiene Publique.  Today, we remember Anna Caroline Maxwell as the founder of Columbia University School of Nursing. There is a professorship of nursing research named after her, and the school maintains a special garden in her honor. Within are several rose bushes of, yes, the Anna Caroline Maxwell variety.   

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Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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