There are many nurses who deserve recognition for their roles in advancing the profession. But when a nurse is known as the “American Florence Nightingale,” that’s high praise indeed.
Like Nightingale, who was from England, Anna Caroline Maxwell was a pioneer of modern nursing. She played a major role in training nurses for military service, the awarding of military rank to nurses, starting the American Journal of Nursing and founding Columbia University’s School of Nursing.
Born in 1851 in Bristol, N.Y., Maxwell began her path to nursing in 1874 when she worked as a matron at New England Hospital. Four years later, she enrolled in the Boston City Hospital Training School for Nurses and graduated in 1880.
Maxwell’s passion for educating nurses led her to a series of jobs in the field. After starting a nurse training program at Montreal General Hospital in 1880, she was named superintendent of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Training School for Nurses a year later. In 1889, she became the first director of Presbyterian Hospital’s nursing school, which later became the Columbia University School of Nursing.
Maxwell also took her expertise to the military. In 1898, she was charged with training 160 nurses to care for about 1,000 soldiers housed at Fort Thomas in Chickamauga. The soldiers, who were serving in the Spanish-American War, suffered from measles, typhoid and malaria. Conditions at the camp were less than ideal until Maxwell and her nurses took over and improved the care at the field hospital.
Citing the importance of nurses in caring for soldiers, Maxwell lobbied for nurses to be awarded with military rank. Although that wouldn’t happen until the 1920, her efforts did help lead to the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901. She even helped design the uniform worn by U.S. Army nurses.
During World War I, Maxwell trained nurses to serve in the military and visited hospitals at the front in Europe. The French government recognized her service with the Medal of Honor for Public Health.
In 1921, she retired from her post at Presbyterian Hospital and co-wrote a nursing textbook. She also helped raise money for Columbia University’s Anna C. Maxwell Hall, which opened in 1928 and was used to educate nurses until 1984.
Maxwell’s legacy is substantial. Her devotion to educating nurses, improving standard procedures and legitimizing the role of nurses left a lasting mark on the profession.
She died in 1929 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
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