Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1897, Virginia Avenel Henderson graduated from the Army School of Nursing in Washington DC in 1921 and gained her master’s degree at New York’s Columbia University.
Her major contribution was to define nursing as ‘assisting individuals to gain independence in relation to the performance of activities contributing to health or its recovery’.
She was said to have delineated nursing from medicine although her own view, that nursing and medicine belonged on a continuum, was rather different.
She was radical, witty and compassionate. In 1988, in an interview with Trevor Clay, then general secretary of the RCN, she defended basic nursing care (then out of vogue) as the ‘basis for physical comfort’ and sympathised with graduate nurses who were too busy with complex tasks to nurse patients.
Hospital care should be for service, not profit, she said, before proclaiming Cuban nursing to be among the best in the world.