Profiles In Nursing

Isabel Hampton Robb (1859–1910), Founding President of the ANA

She brought rigor and standards to nursing education

Oil painting of Isabel Hampton Robb, first ANA president

The first president of what is now the American Nurses Association (ANA), Isabel Adams Hampton Robb was also an important innovator in American nursing education. She spearheaded a movement to transform nursing schools from hospital training programs into rigorous academic institutions, helping to make nursing the profession it is today.

From Schoolteacher to Nurse

Isabel Hampton was born in 1859 in Welland, Canada. At the age of 17, she became a school teacher at an annual salary of $300. One afternoon four years later, Hampton overheard her principal discussing a hospital in New York that was accepting nursing school applicants. A few of her teaching colleagues considered applying, but only Hampton took the chance.

She was accepted into the Bellevue Training School for Nurses, one of the first schools in the U.S. to be based on the theories of Florence Nightingale. After graduation, Hampton spent about 18 months in Italy with St. Paul’s House for Trained Nurses in Rome.

First Role in Nursing Leadership

Despite having a mere three years of nursing experience, Hampton became superintendent of the Illinois Training School for Nurses at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

From the moment of her arrival, she had ambitious ideas on how to improve nursing education. Up to that time, a nursing student’s training was based solely on the needs and capacity of the hospital the school was affiliated with, which could vary greatly. As Hampton later noted, the title of nurse could mean “anything, everything, or next to nothing,” depending on the individual’s training.

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Believing that nursing education should have a strong foundation of theory supplemented with clinical experience, Hampton led the development of a standardized curriculum.

Students’ time would be divided between didactic instruction and the application of practical skills. Hampton increased students’ clinical training by securing an affiliation with the Presbyterian Hospital. This partnership allowed student nurses to be trained at two hospitals rather than only one.

The Illinois Training School consented to Hampton’s innovations on the condition that she would train her eventual successor. At the end of her tenure, the school’s board of directors said that while her departure was a loss to the school, “nursing in its broader aspect did not lose.”

“Dignified and Respected”

In 1889, Hampton was selected over 80 competing applicants to become the first superintendent of the new School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

During her time in Baltimore, she instituted many significant changes in nursing education. She petitioned to increase the length of the program from two years to three, while shortening nursing students’ shifts from nine hours to eight to allow time for sufficient rest.

“Baltimore had never before known a trained nurse,” said Hampton’s colleague Lavinia Dock, RN. “Miss Hampton … fixed the nurse’s status in the community as a dignified and respected one, both professionally and socially.”

Nurses Banding Together

Four years into her tenure at Johns Hopkins, Hampton spoke before the International Congress of Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy in Chicago about the need to establish uniform educational standards for nurses.

Hiring Now

This call to reform laid the groundwork for the formation of the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools. Not only was this organization a significant move for nursing education, it was also the first professional organization in the U.S. created and controlled by women.

Hampton resigned from Johns Hopkins University in 1894 to marry Hunter Robb, an OB/GYN doctor. At their wedding in London that summer, she carried a bouquet of flowers sent by Florence Nightingale.

Although the couple resettled in Cleveland and had two children, marriage did not mean the end of her career. She continued to write and speak about nursing and nursing education, authored three textbooks, and was much sought after as a consultant for nursing training programs.

In September 1896, Hampton joined a group of other nurses at a hotel near New York City to organize the first national professional association for nurses: the Nurses’ Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada — which we now know as the American Nurses Association. Hampton was elected its first president, serving until 1901.

One of the initial goals of the new organization was to promote Hampton’s mandate of rigorous, standardized nursing education.

“In Every Sense of the Word a Leader”

Tragically, Isabel Hampton died in a streetcar accident in Cleveland in 1910. She was just 49 years old. After her death, the American Journal of Nursing published reminiscences from Hampton’s friends and colleagues about her career and her tremendous impact on the nursing profession.

Her colleague Adelaide Nutting, RN, described Hampton as “in every sense of the word a leader.”

In 1911, the Nurses’ Associated Alumnae became the American Nurses Association, which remains the nation’s preeminent nursing organization. Fittingly, Hampton was one of the first nurses inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976.


PAYTON SY, RN, BSN, has experience working in home health, hospital nursing, and primary care. Her passions include patient education and health literacy.


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