Profile of a Famous Nurse: Virginia Avernal Henderson

Some nurses influence the profession by advancing clinical practice or by changing the roles of nurses in health care. Others leave a lasting legacy by teaching and mentoring generations of nurses. Virginia Avernal Henderson was one of those teachers.

Born in 1897 in Kansas City, Mo., Henderson is often called the “first lady of nursing” and the first “truly international nurse.” She graduated from the U.S. Army School of Nursing in 1921 and worked as a public health nurse in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Henderson found her true calling as a nursing educator in 1924 when she became an instructor and education director at Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia. In 1932 she earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in 1934 from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Henderson taught and influenced nursing students from all over the world during her teaching stint at Teachers College (1934 to 1948). During her time there, she revised Bertha Harmer’s “Textbook of the Principles and Practice of Nursing,” a widely used book in nursing education.

Her scope of influence widened after she took a position in research at Yale University in 1953. Henderson collaborated with Leo Simonds to publish “Nursing Research A Survey and Assessment.” She also led the efforts to produce “The Nursing Studies Index,” a four-volume reference publication.

Henderson’s best-known work is “Nature of Nursing,” which was published in 1966. In the book, she drew from her knowledge and experience to describe what she considered to be the essence of nursing. The most famous passage from the book defines what nurses do:

“The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery [or to peaceful death] that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.”

After retiring from Yale in 1971, she devoted the rest of her life to speaking about nursing around the world.

After eating chocolate cake and ice cream with family and friends, she died peacefully in 1996 in Branford, Conn.