Virginia Avenel Henderson (November 30, 1897 – March 19, 1996) was an influential nurse, researcher, theorist, and author.
Henderson is famous for a definition of nursing: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge” (first published in Henderson & Nite 1978, p. 5, 1955 ed.). She is known as “the first lady of nursing” and has been called, “arguably the most famous nurse of the 20th century” and “the quintessential nurse of the twentieth century”. In a 1996 article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing Edward Halloran wrote, “Virginia Henderson’s written works will be viewed as the 20th century equivalent of those of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale.”
Henderson was born on November 30, 1897 in Kansas City, Missouri to Daniel B. Henderson, a lawyer who worked with Native Americans, and Lucy Minor (Abbot) Henderson. She was the fifth of their eight children. She grew up in Virginia where she received her early education at her grandfather’s community boys’ school.
Henderson’s early education was at home in Virginia with her aunts and her uncle at his all-boys school. In 1921, Henderson graduated from the US Army School of Nursing in Washington, D.C.. She received a BS in 1931 or 1932 and a Master’s degree in 1934 from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Henderson has received numerous honors. The International Council of Nurses presented her with the inaugural Christiane Reimann Prize in 1985 considered the most prestigious award in nursing. She was an honorary fellow of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Nursing (FRCN). She was selected to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame and has received honorary degrees from thirteen universities. She received the Virginia Historical Nurse Leadership Award in 1985. The Virginia Henderson Repository an online resource for nursing research that grew out of the Virginia Henderson International Nursing Library at Sigma Theta Tau is named in her honor. Henderson was recognized as one of fifty-one pioneer nurses in Virginia in 2000.
Henderson’s theory stresses the priority of patient self-determination so the patient will continue doing well after being released from the hospital. Henderson characterized the nurse’s role as substitutive, which the nurse does for the patient; supplementary, which is helping the patient; or complementary, which is engaging with the patient to do something. The role of the nurse helps the patient become an individual again. She arranged nursing tasks into 14 different components based on personal needs. Not only are nurses responsible for the patient, but also to help the patient be themselves when they leave their care. This assures that the patient has fewer obstacles during recovery from being sick or injured, and helping getting back into self-care is easier when a nurse is there to motivate until the patient goes home.
She died in 1996 at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Connecticut, aged 98,and was interred in her family’s plot of the churchyard of St. Stephen’s Church, Forest, Bedford County, Virginia. She is survived by her great-niece, Catherine Mark Burdge, a nurse practitioner in Fairfield, Connecticut and a graduate of the Yale School of Nursing.
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