May 6-12 is Nurses Week, our annual celebration of the more than 3 million individuals who collectively represent the profession that is consistently rated the highest in trust and integrity by pollsters, and whose work forms the foundation for much of modern healthcare. 

Clara Barton (1821-1912), founder of the American Red Cross

Nurses week culminates on May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday—widely considered to be the founder of modern nursing.  Contemporary with Florence Nightingale, whose work was largely based in Great Britain, is Clara Barton—whose work as a nurse, manager, and organizer led to the founding of the American Red Cross. (Here in DC we hear “Clara Barton” and think parkway, not pioneer.)

But those are not the only two luminaries who stand behind modern nurses.  Look a bit further into the past and you can find an amazing array of compassionate and committed people who gave modern nursing a unique culture that puts them at the very foundation of excellent healthcare.

People like Linda Richards, who was the first person to earn a Nursing diploma in the US back in 1873, demonstrating a commitment to learning and achievement that is at the heart of nursing. Or like James Derham, a Philadelphia man who was born into slavery in the 1770s. His skill as a nurse inspired the doctor who “owned” Derham to encourage him to use his skills to purchase his freedom. Having freed himself by the skill of his own hands, Derham soon established a medical practice and became the first African American to be recognized as a physician in the United States.

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860–65

Look over nursing’s past and you might glimpse First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.  Look even farther back and you can see the monks and knights—holy men and soldiers—who laid aside their callings to care for the sick, the injured, and the wounded across the centuries, and helped establish the profession that is now modern nursing.

But you don’t need to look back; just look around. Nurses are the backbone of our work— they are active in virtually every aspect of modern healthcare. We simply could not do our job without them.

So at the start of Nurses Week, I salute you—every one of you who so faithfully bring your calling, your training and skill, your experience, and your compassionate heart to our work, and who claim the name of Nurse.

We pray that this annual day of celebration will help communicate how vitally important you are to us and to the work of hope and healing that is ours to carry out each day.