Reaching for Healthcare as a Human Right From the Shoulders of Giants

On May 12, International Nurses Day and Florence Nightingale's birthday, nurses around the world will rally in support of the declaration, “Healthcare is a Human Right,” as part of a day of action organized by Global Nurses United, an international network of nurses’ unions, including National Nurses United.

When GNU leaders came together to establish the network in 2013, they pledged to work together to guarantee the highest standards of universal healthcare as a human right for all. This ambitious agenda is the legacy of the many giants in the history of nursing who dreamed big and organized with others to realize those dreams. As we prepare for the day of actions on May 12, we pause and reflect on that legacy, to remember the values and the deeds of some of our predecessors.  


Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale (1820-1910) is credited as the founder of modern nursing, and despite this, public awareness is often limited to her work tending to the wounded in the Crimean war. In fact, she was an expert statistician and developed groundbreaking data visualization tools to advocate for changes in military and other health policies. The so-called ‘Lady with the lamp’ shed more light on health practices through her skill at collecting, evaluating, and analyzing data than with any lamp she carried while at the warfront.


mary seacoleMary Seacole (1805-1881) was born in Jamaica and drew on the Creole medical remedies she learned from her mother, particularly in the treatment of tropical diseases. She organized a response to a cholera outbreak in Panama, noting, “I believe that the faculty have not yet come to the conclusion that the cholera is contagious, and I am not presumptuous enough to forestall them; but my people have always considered it to be so…” Rejected for volunteer service in the Crimea, Seacole self-funded her travels and established a “bed and breakfast” style retreat for soldiers and used the proceeds to pay for supplies and health services at the front.


nazaria lagosNazaria Lagos (1851-1945) was appointed as the first president of the Red Cross in Dueñas, Iloilo, in 1897, under the auspices of the Catholic Church and the military government, both aspects of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Soon after, she and her family joined the Philippine movement for independence from Spain and Lagos organized a rebel hospital on her family’s remote hacienda. Since medicine and drugs were not available, she gathered local medicinal plants and recruited traditional healers and nurses from the Red Cross to assist with the hospital. After Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the hospital continued to operate until US troops occupied Illoilo and burned down the hacienda as punishment. Today Lagos is highly honored in the Philippines for using her skills as a healer and organizer to support the revolution at great risk to herself and her family.


lavinia dockLavinia Dock (1858-1956) was a pioneer in nursing education and a political activist in the suffragist and other movements. In the 1907 American Journal of Nursing, Dock admonished her fellow nurses to get involved: “I am ardently convinced that our national association will fail of its highest opportunities and fall short of its best mission if it restricts itself to the narrow path of purely professional questions and withholds its interest and sympathy and its moral support from the great, urgent, throbbing, pressing social clams of our day and generation.” Dock walked her talk and was arrested and jailed numerous times for her activism. Despite subsequent gains in women’s rights, her questions to her peers are still relevant today: “As the modern nursing movement is emphatically an outcome of the general woman movement and as nurses are no longer a dull, uneducated class, but an intelligent army of workers…What is to be our attitude toward full citizenship?  Shall we be an intelligent, enlightened body of citizens, or an inert mass of indifference?”


lilian waldLillian Wald (1867-1940) invented the practice of the “public health nurse” and the concept of public health policies in general. Wald opened the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City to provide healthcare and other services to immigrant women and other residents living in poverty in the Lower East Side. Then, and still today, Henry Street’s range of health, educational and cultural programs, manifest Wald’s holistic vision. The Wald Circle, made up social workers, female trade unionists and active suffragists, advocated extensive social reforms including protective legislation for children. Although Wald’s activism angered some of Henry Street’s wealthy donors, she refused to be intimidated or stop her organizing.  


cecilia makiwaneCecilia Makiwane (1880-1919) was raised in what was known at the time as, the British Cape Colony. In 1903 Makiwane was one of the first black students to be admitted to the colonial nursing college and then became the first black woman in South Africa to be licensed as a nurse. She participated in the first women’s anti-pass campaign, an early pre-cursor to the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. Before this campaign, women had not been actively resisting the regime and the uprising, particularly because it was multi-racial, greatly alarmed authorities. Makiwane and the over 5000 women who were part of the campaign, many of whom were arrested and jailed, showed great courage and foresight in challenging the status quo more than 80 years before the dismantling of apartheid. 


Each one of these women embodied the courage and commitment that is at the heart of nursing today:

  • They were visionary and ahead of their time
  • They were expert in the development of health sciences and social policy 
  • They recognized how human health connects to social justice and planetary health
  • They were advocates, organizers and facilitators - creating systems and organizations to make change and address human needs
  • They overcame discrimination, borders and financial restraints to accomplish their goals

Let their memory be a tonic and inspiration as together we confront contemporary challenges and move forward towards quality healthcare for every human being on this planet.

Happy International Nurses Day!