First Lady of Nursing: Virginia Henderson Essay


Virginia Henderson has made an everlasting imprint on society. With her various degrees and teaching settings, Virginia was a very knowledgeable nurse who helped other young nurses into their roles in the health care industry. She was not only a teacher and student, but also a researcher. Because of her many roles in nursing, the books she has written and revised cover a wide span of information. Although this may intimidate some, Virginia wrote for a general audience so that all could learn how to take care of a sick loved one.

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She defined nursing, so that the whole population could have a universal definition. She pushed for the roles of nurses to be clearly defined so that hospitals would be able to see all a nurse could or could not do, making a safer environment for the patient. Because of all her work, Virginia Henderson is one of the most well-known nurses in history.

Key Words: Virginia Henderson, Need Theory, Definition of Nursing

A look Inside the First Lady of Nursing: Virginia Henderson

After a long hospital stay a patient hopes to go home and care for themselves; this was not always the case until Virginia Henderson revolutionized the nursing industry.

Virginia grew up with a great education and went to school for many years, giving her an extensive span of knowledge that allowed her to make her mark on nursing. Although nursing is a forever changing occupation with new innovative technology always arising, Virginia Henderson has made a lasting mark on nursing with her “Need Theory” and her many books, teaching nurses worldwide the concepts of health promotion and disease prevention.

Henderson began her life in Kansas City, but she was only there for a short four years. Born on November 30, 1897 Henderson became the fifth child of what would be eight. Her parents, Lucy Abbot Henderson and Daniel B. Henderson, came from a background of educators and scholars. In 1901, at the age of four, the Henderson’s relocated to Virginia, where Virginia would finish her maturing (Halloran, 2007).

Through a developed impulse to help the sick and wounded military personnel, Henderson began her journey of nursing. Beginning her education at a young age of four under William Richardson Abbot, a figure named “grandfather”, Virginia Henderson grew to be a well-informed individual as she continued her schooling. Although she attended school, Virginia’s education did not produce a diploma, which hindered her entrance into nursing school (Halloran, 2007). In 1921, Virginia graduated the Army School of Nursing, located in Washington D.C and continued her journey as a nurse by accepting a position as a staff nurse at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service. After briefly working here, Henderson began her role as a teacher. Working back to her roots, she taught at Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia (Anderson, 1999, p. 9). Here, Virginia was the first and only teacher in the school of nursing (Halloran, 2007).

Although she was not done with her role as teacher, she decided to let another do the teaching when she went back to school at Columbia University Teachers College to complete her Baccalaureate and Masters degree in nursing. After accomplishing these goals in her career she again went back to educating young nurses at the Teachers College from 1930 to 1948 (Herrmann, 1996, p. 19). Throughout her role as an educator, Henderson saw the need to teach young nurses not only clinical skills, but also analytical skills to help them succeed as nurses (Anderson, 1999, p. 9).

As her years of teaching came to an end, Henderson took on the role of researcher associate at Yale University in 1953 (Herrmann, 1996, p. 19). The research, named the National Survey of Nursing, conducted was “designed to survey and assess the status of nursing research in the United States” (Halloran, 2007). Later on in life, after the completion of her Nursing Studies Index, Virginia began to see the world as she “embarked on an international schedule of consultation” (Herrmann, 1996, p.22). With all this knowledge she was able to write and revise many books that would keep her name alive even today.

Another major part in Virginia Henderson’s career is the work that will survive forever, her books. While teaching at Columbia, “she revised Bertha Harmer’s Textbook of the Principles and Practice of Nursing, which was published in 1939” (Halloran, 2007). Starting in 1948, she began to revise the fourth edition of the Principles and Practice of Nursing, which took her five years to write. Although the title may fool the reader that this book was not meant only for nurses, “it is written for anyone who is faced with the prospect of caring for another human being”. Her earlier works were greatly influenced by all she had gained as an instructor of clinical nursing (Halloran, 1996, p. 20). Creating the first annotated index of nursing research, Henderson began her four volume Nursing Studies Index in 1959 and completed it after twelve years (Halloran, 2007).

This volume was “an analytical and historical review of nursing literature from 1900 to 1959” (Tlou, 2001, p. 241). Henderson continued to write as she progressed in years. She wrote Basic Principles of Nursing Care in 1960, Nursing Research: A Survey and Assessment in 1964, and the Nature of Nursing in 1966 (Herrmann, 1996, p.21). The beginning of her sixth edition of the Principles and Practice of Nursing started when Virginia was seventy- five, in the year 1972. In the book she argues that “health care will be reformed by the individual nurses who will enable their patients to be independent in health care matters when patients are both educated and encouraged to care for themselves” (Halloran, 2007). Although her books have a great influence on us, the thing that makes her most well-known is her definition of nursing and the Need Theory.

With her contribution of her Need Theory, Henderson taught other nurses what she believed was the true meaning of nursing: to assist an individual to become more independent on the road to health. Henderson defined nursing as “helping people, sick or well in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery, or to a peaceful death, that they would perform unaided if they had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge” (Halloran, 1996, p. 23). In her basic needs theory Henderson defines the roles of a nurse by explaining that a nurse should help or provide conditions under which the patient can do the following unaided: 1. Breathe normally.

2. Eat and drink adequately. 3. Eliminate body wastes. 4. Move and maintain desirable position.5. Sleep and rest. 6. Select suitable clothes – dress and undress. 7. Maintain body temperatures within normal range by adjusting clothing and modifying environment. 8. Keep the body clean and well groomed and protect the integument. 9. Avoid dangers in the environment and avoid injuring others. 10. Communicate with others in expressing emotions, needs, fears, or opinions.11. Worship according to one’s faith.

12. Work in such a way that there is a sense of accomplishment. 13. Play or participate in various forms of recreation. 14. Learn, discover, or satisfy the curiosity that leads to normal development and health and use the available health facilities. Henderson wanted to define nursing because she feared that some states didn’t have a true definition of nursing, which could lead to an unsafe environment for patients. In order to solve this issue she believed that nursing should be defined in the Nurse Practice Acts that would clearly state a nurses roles (Anderson, 1999, p. 10). Even though she defined nursing as this, she still saw acknowledged that nurses were given a stereotype.

Virginia Henderson had an ideal of what nursing should be and who they were. She believed that nurses during her time were not able to give the care that they thought would help the patient (Henderson, 2006). Virginia believed that because nurses came from all classes in society that the public had a confused definition of what a nurse was. She saw that the image of a nurse was influenced by the fact that most were women, who were not well educated from a privileged social class.

Virginia Henderson saw nurses as the ones who provided the most intimate and comforting service as they are the ones who are continuously with the patient, because of this she saw nurses as independent practitioners. She identified a nurse as someone who would have to be able to work with all ages of people in order to provide for their needs and help them live a life as normally as possible (Henderson, 2006). In order to fix the stereotype and lead members of society to truly see how important nurses were, Henderson thought nurses should be educated in a certain way.

Henderson also believed that nurses should be prepared in national, provincial or state systems of higher education (Henderson, 2006, p. 25). She thought that nursing students should work with other people in the health fields in order to create an interdisciplinary learning environment. She also believed that nurses needed an understanding of government and economics (Henderson, 2006, p. 26). She thought that nursing students should be assigned to practitioners, where they would first observe and then participate until they can function independently.

She thought nursing should be taught in stages. The first stage would be geared toward studying the basic human needs or functions and helping patients with daily activities. The second stage would be devoted to helping patients with common dysfunctions. The third stage would be studying the different stages of life and the specific help that is needed for a particular disease. She also thought that nursing students should be taught in a multitude of settings (Henderson, 2006, p. 30). If each of these principles were followed Virginia believed nurses would get the education they needed and be respected.

Without the ground-breaking research and ideas contributed by Virginia Henderson, nurses today would not be taking care of patients in a style allowing them to succeed after recovery from the hospital. Virginia passed away on March 19, 1996. Although she may be gone from this world she is still with us through her books and her theories.

Anderson, M. (1999). Virginia avenel henderson: A modern legend. Wyoming Nurse, 12(1), 9-10. Halloran, E. J. (1996). Virginia henderson and her timeless writings. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23(1), 17-24. doi: Halloran, E. J. (2007). Virginia henderson 1897- 1996. Retrieved January/31, 2013, from Henderson, V. (2006). The concept of nursing. 1977. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 53(1), 21-31;
discussion 32-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.03660.x Henderson, V. (2006). Some observations on health care by health services or health industries. 1986. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 54(1), 1-2; discussion 2-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.03829_1.x Herrmann, E. K. (1996). Virginia henderson: Signature for nursing. Connecticut Nursing News, 69(5), 1. Tlou, S. D. (2001). Nursing: A new era for action. A virginia henderson memorial lecture. Nursing Inquiry, 8(4), 240-245.

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