10 of the Greatest Literary Nurses


May isn’t only short story month — it’s also National Nurses Month. Just a few weeks ago, In Fact Books, the book imprint founded and edited by creative nonfiction powerhouse Lee Gutkind, published their latest, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, a collection of true narratives from nurses remembering their first “sticks,” first births, and first deaths; reflecting on what gets them through long, demanding shifts; and what keeps them in the profession. It turns out that for centuries, the stories of nurses have captivated readers’ imagination, showing us the passion, strength, and courage required for the job. So in honor of all nurses, In Fact Books has curated a list of ten of the greatest literary nurses of all time. Some of the names might surprise you. Check them out the list after the jump, and add your favorites in the comments.

Walt Whitman

Kicking off the list is the “Good Gray Poet” Walt Whitman, who served a nurse during the Civil War. In 1862, 43-year-old Whitman was already an accomplished writer, having published Leaves of Grass in 1855. But when he learned his brother had been wounded in battle and was recovering in a hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman rushed to his aid. While his brother’s injury was merely a superficial jaw wound, Whitman was so moved by what he saw that he hopped on a train to Washington, DC, where he stayed for three years as a volunteer nurse. He later referred to himself not as a nurse, but a “visitor & consolatory” bringing “soothing invigoration” to the soldiers, an experience he described in one of his famous “Drum Taps” poems, “The Wound Dresser.”

Louisa May Alcott

On her 30th birthday, Louisa May Alcott decided she wanted to do more to help during the Civil War, so she decided to head to Washington to work as a nurse. While serving, she wrote letters home to her family in Concord and later published slightly fictionalized versions of those letters as Tribulation Periwinkle, the narrator of the popular Hospital Sketches. The book was a great commercial success and paved the way for the publication of Alcott’s classic, Little Women, and its sequels.

Florence Nightingale

It’s no coincidence that International Nurses Day shares Florence Nightingale’s birthday on May 12th. Perhaps this list’s most iconic nurse, Florence Nightingale is widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing. She first became well-known for her efforts during the Crimean War, during which she was nicknamed “The Lady with the Lamp” because of her habit of making the hospital rounds in the middle of the night. In 1859, Nightingale wrote the revolutionary “Notes on Nursing,” which is considered a classic and is still used as a primary text in many nursing schools. Nightingale established the world’s first secular nursing school, was a voice for hunger relief in India, helped abolish overly severe prostitution laws, and supported female participation in the work force.

Mary Seacole

Like Florence Nightingale, Jamaican-born Mary Seacole also served as a nurse during the Crimean War, but received far less notice for her achievements. She was listed as an example of “hidden” black history in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses: “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.” She was forgotten for nearly a century after her death, but she’s remembered today as a pioneer in nursing and one of the first black woman to write an autobiography with her 1857 book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.

Catherine Barkley/Agnes von Kurowsky

Agnes von Kurowsky was an American nurse dispatched to a Red Cross hospital in Milan during WWI. At least one of her patients, 19-year old Ernest Hemingway, fell in love with her. There is debate over whether his affections were returned and how far the relationship really went, but after Hemingway returned to the United States, Kurowsky wrote to let him know she had become engaged to an Italian officer. The two never met again. She will be forever remembered as the inspiration for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s dramatization of the romance also inspired several feature films including a 1932 adaptation of the novel, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, a 1957 remake of that film, and 1996’s In Love and War. Some believe a fictionalized Kurowsky also appears in Hemingway’s short stories, “A Very Short Story” and “The Snows of Mt. Killimanjaro.”

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir, Testament of Youth, details Vera’s work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during WWI, as well as some of her struggles in the following years to establish a career in postwar England. Her memoir is considered a major feminist and pacifist text, and she went on to lecture for the League of Nations and have a successful career in journalism.

Cherry Ames

Cherry Ames is the plucky, Nancy-Drew-like heroine in a series of 27 mystery novels set in hospitals and published during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. These novels by Helen Wells were meant to inspire young girls to pursue a nursing career and they are now viewed as being feminist and progressive for their time, with independent Cherry Ames solving mysteries and developing from a student nurse to a professional throughout the series. The books even inspired a Parker Brothers board game and are now prized by collectors.

Margaret Sanger

While some of Margaret Sanger’s viewpoints have been criticized in recent years, she was one of history’s greatest advocates for female reproductive rights. Early in the twentieth century, Sanger authored essays and articles for New York periodicals, promoting reproductive education, and she eventually started her own eight-page monthly newsletter, “The Woman Rebel.” Because of her publications, Sanger was federally indicted in 1914 on four counts of violating anti-obscenity laws and one count of “inciting murder and assassination.” But the public and Sanger’s close friends rallied around her — among her supporters were Upton Sinclair, who wrote a letter of support in The Masses, a magazine of socialist politics, and Clarence Darrow, who offered to defend her pro bono — and the charges were dropped. In 1951, she collaborated on a project to develop the first oral contraceptive, and in 1960, the FDA approved Enovid, thus fulfilling Sanger’s lifelong goal of bringing safe and private contraception to the general public. Sanger also opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and established the organization that would become Planned Parenthood.

Nurse Ratched

Nurse Ratched is inarguably one of pop culture’s most notorious nurses and the undisputed villain of this list. The antagonist in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as Milos Forman’s 1975 film of the same name, Nurse Ratched, the head nurse of a mental ward, controls her patients through bullying and revoking patient privileges at the slightest transgression. Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character and in her acceptance speech said, “I’ve loved being hated by you.”

Theresa Brown

Theresa Brown wears many hats — including clinical nurse, popular author, and columnist for the New York Times — earning her the distinction of being named one of the decade’s “Top Ten Most Influential Voices About Nursing” by the nonprofit organization The Truth About Nursing. Brown’s first book, Critical Care, is a medical memoir recounting her first year as an RN in oncology, and her second book, The Shift, will be published by Algonquin Press in early 2014. She lectures all over the country on issues related to nursing, health care, and end of life.