Remembering the First Lady of Nursing

Virginia Avenel Henderson died March 19, 1996 at the age of 98. Her ending had the warmth, style, and graciousness of her life. After partaking chocolate cake and ice cream and saying goodbyes to her family and friends, she passed from one dimension to another.

Miss Henderson, and she always preferred Miss to Ms., left behind a corpus of work that is the soul of modern nursing: a definition of nursing with sufficient precision and poetry to become the internationally adopted statement of who we are; three of the Principles and Practice of Nursing that elaborated on the knowledge base necessary to act in terms of the definition; a survey and assessment of nursing research that shifted nursing research away from studying nurses to studying the differences that nurses can make in people's lives; the Nursing Studies Index that captured the intellectual history of the first six decades of the 20th century.

Miss Henderson's life spanned most of the 20th century.

She was born in Kansas City, Missouri on Nov. 30, 1897, the fifth of eight children of Daniel B. and Lucy Minor (Abbot) Henderson. Her father was an attorney for Native American Indians. Her mother came from the state of Virginia to which Miss Henderson returned for her early schooling. She was educated at the U.S. Army School of Nursing (1921) and Teachers College, Columbia University where she completed her B.S. (1932) and M.A. (1934), then taught from 1934 until 1948.

In 1953, she joined Yale School of Nursing, a particularly fitting association, since the first dean, Annie Warburton Goodrich, had served as her mentor in her early professional years. The Yale years were a time of great productivity.

Miss Henderson used her "emeritus" years to serve as nursing consultant to the world.

The International Council of Nurses acknowledged that she belonged to the world in June 1985 when she was presented with the first Christianne Reimann Prize, recognizing that her span of influence knew no national boundaries. Indeed, her later years were characterized by many honors (e.g. honorary doctorates from University of Western Ontario, University of Rochester, Rush University, Pace University, Catholic University of America, Yale University, Old Dominion University, Boston College, Thomas Jefferson University, Emory University, etc.) and many distinguished lectures from Great Britain's Royal College of Nursing to the Sorbonne to the Japanese Nursing Association.

A Virginia Henderson Reader (1995) edited by Edward Holloran, is the best source available today for a compilation of Miss Henderson's own thinking. When you glance through that volume, you are struck with the currency of her ideas. She recognized early on the importance of an outcomes orientation, health promotion, continuity of care, patient advocacy, multidisciplinary scholarship, integration of the arts and sciences, and boundary spanning.

Her elegant definition of nursing, with its emphasis on complementing the patient's capabilities, provides a clear direction for what nursing should be--a wonderful counter force to the confusion that surrounds a health care system increasingly preoccupied with bottom line rather than enduring values.

This celebration of Miss Henderson's life and achievements would not come close to portraying the real woman, however, if it did not include some reflections on the person. With her silky drawl, bright blue eyes, wispy curls, and beautiful clothes, Miss Henderson was the embodiment of an impish Southern gentlewoman. She was the most gracious hostess I have ever encountered, and had a wicked sense of humor.

When she took responsibility for a school Christmas party, she managed to organize dozens of colleagues into carving out ivory soap bars that would be covered with gold paper to become candle holders. In the process, a drab lounge became transformed into a luminous fairyland setting. When she met nurses who would be tongue-tied at being introduced to the Virginia Henderson, she would merrily say, "I know that you have probably thought I've been dead for years."

For me, Miss Henderson was the incarnation of those Greek verities--the good, the true, and the beautiful. She was shaped by the aesthetic that produced beautiful surroundings in honey and rose colored tones (she gave up the idea of becoming an interior designer/architect when there was a need for nurses in World War I), as well as elegant arguments embellished by references to a literature much broader than just the nursing literature.

Miss Henderson, the Southern gentlewoman, regularly defied stereotype. She had the wisdom at 90 of looking into the face of a 15-year-old with blue-streaked punk hair and a nose ring, and saying, "You are beautiful," gathering to her another Henderson disciple. She had the ability to question the fashionable emphasis on nursing process, reminding us all that problem solving does not belong to any one profession.

Even when her memory and hearing started to fail, she was not limited, because her curiosity and interest in people elicited from them an engagement in the issues that then set in motion her own creative juices.

Virginia Henderson was arguably the most famous nurse of the 20th century. Because that was the case, Sigma Theta Tau's International Nursing e-Repository (and the library before it) bears her name. She was only willing to permit use of her name if the electronic networking system to be developed would advance the work of staff nurses by getting to them current and jargon-free information wherever they were based. She was proud of that living testimonial to nursing excellence.

To the extent that Miss Henderson was the most famous nurse of the past century, we can collectively look back with pride on where we as a profession have been and where we are heading, as we strive to meet Miss Henderson's standards in the electronic idiom of the day.

A family-sponsored memorial service was held at Battel Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, CT on May 6 the first day of National Nurses week in 1996. Miss Henderson's family, including her grandniece, Catherine Burdge, who is a member of Sigma Theta Tau, requested that in lieu of flowers, memorial gifts be made to the Virginia Henderson Fund, Yale School of Nursing, 100 Church Street South, Box 9740, New Haven, CT 06536.

An additional opportunity for gifts in memory of Miss Henderson exists with Sigma Theta Tau International through contributions to the Virginia Henderson Clinical Research Award, 550 W. North Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202.

*Angela Barron McBride, PhD, RN, FAAN, a past president of the society, and former dean at Indiana University School of Nursing wrote the above article in tribute to Miss Henderson which appeared in the First Quarter, 1996 issue of Reflections, a Sigma Theta Tau publication.