Named for a Nurse

May 2, 2012, 1:00 PM

On a daily basis, some 17,000 Washington, D.C., area commuters drive down a seven-mile stretch of road paralleling the Potomac River, and bearing the name of a groundbreaking nurse: Clara Barton. Some 120 miles northeast, twice as many daily drivers stream past a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike named for her, as well, many stopping to gas up or grab a bite to eat. If they motor another 120 miles north and east, they can visit a 2,000-student high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., with the name of the very same giant of her profession emblazoned across its facade.

The name belongs to Clara Barton, Civil War nurse, teacher, suffragist, civil rights advocate, and perhaps most famously, founder of the American Red Cross. Her name graces a host of memorials, historic sites, counties, schools, roads and more. The list includes: a county in the heart of Kansas and a subdivision in Edison, N.J.; a community center in Cabin John, Md.; schools in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and North Dakota; a college dormitory at Iowa State University; roads in Maryland, New York, Texas and Virginia; a regional association of the Unitarian Universalist Association; and a 32-cent U.S. stamp.

In addition, two of Barton’s homes have been turned into museums. The Clara Barton Birthplace Museum in North Oxford tells the story of her life with a variety of period artifacts. It is also home to the Barton Center for Diabetes Education. Similarly, her last home, in Cabin John, Md., is maintained as a museum by the National Park Service, not far from the Clara Barton Parkway and community center.

She is hardly the only American nurse to be memorialized. Others include:

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American professional nurse, and is a member of the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.

A native of the Boston area, she graduated from nursing school in 1879, and today a dialysis center is named for her in her hometown of Roxbury, Mass. So is a family shelter and a transitional housing program at a local hospital. Some 1,700 miles away, residents of Spencer and Langston, Okla., get medical care at clinics named for Mahoney. Both are operated by the nonprofit Community Health Centers, Inc. In addition, the American Nurses Association presents a Mary Mahoney Award in recognition of the recipient’s work to advance opportunities in nursing to members of minority groups.

• Born in Kentucky in 1881, Mary Breckinridge became an influential figure in the American nurse-midwife movement, and went on to create the Frontier Nursing Service, which provides professional health care in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. The system is credited with significantly lowering the region’s maternal mortality rate. Breckinridge’s name lives on in her native state. She is honored annually with a Mary Breckinridge Festival in Hyden, Ky., and has the Mary Breckinridge Hospital named for her in the same community. In a sadly ironic twist, the hospital closed its maternity ward in 2010, under financial pressures. Breckinridge’s name and image also grace a 77-cent U.S. stamp.

• In her brief life of 32 years, Helen Fairchild served as a nurse with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. She became famous for a series of wartime letters she sent back home, describing in horrific terms the brutal nature of trench warfare. She died in 1918 in England, several days after undergoing surgery for a gastric ulcer. She had developed complications thought to have been related to her exposure to mustard gas. Today, seven miles from her childhood home in Turbot Township, Pa., a bridge traversing the Susquehanna River bears her name.

British Nurses Remembered

At least two British nurses are remembered with monuments in the United States, as well.

Edith Cavell earned her place in history during World War I. While working as a nurse in Belgium, she gained a reputation for treating casualties on both sides. But she also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from occupied territory, for which she was arrested, court-martialed and executed. A variety of memorials have been erected to her, and medical facilities, streets and schools carry her name in Britain, South Africa, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Mauritius, Canada, Portugal, France and elsewhere. Several such remembrances are in the United States, including streets in Florida, Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey. In addition, a playground in Minneapolis, a scholarship fund for nursing students in Dallas and a YMCA camp in Lexington, Mich., all bear her name. She also has a peak in the Canadian Rockies named for her, along with a rose varietal.

• Not surprisingly, Florence Nightingale’s name is in frequent use, as well. The nursing pioneer known as the “Lady with the Lamp” has a range of memorials in her native Britain, and a number of streets, avenues and roads in the United States. In addition, public schools bear her name in each of the nation’s three most populous cities: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Also of Interest

Two other noteworthy names have had their place in nursing history similarly validated. Twenty-five miles north of the Clara Barton rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike is the Walt Whitman rest area. Though much better known for his literary contributions, Whitman served as a Civil War nurse and went on to write poems about his experiences.

In addition, Dorothea Dix, a giant in the development of psychiatric care in the United States, was not herself a nurse, but was Superintendent of U.S. Army Nurses during the Civil War. She has a street named for her in Middletown, N.Y., parks in Hampden, Maine, and Raleigh, N.C., and 1-cent stamp. Finally, the U.S.S. Dorothea Dix served as a troop transport ship during World War II and, among other missions, ferried Allied invasion forces to the Normandy beaches on the morning of the D-Day landings. She was decommissioned in 1946.

These and other remembrances of prominent nurses in history dot the U.S. landscape. Is there a street, building or memorial to a famous nurse in your community? Have you visited any of the memorials noted in this article? Please share your experience by registering below and leaving a comment.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.