The History of Nurses Week

By University Staff

The History of Nurses Week

Nurses Week begins on May 6 and runs through May 12, Florence Nightingale's birthday. To understand how Nurses Week evolved, it is important to understand the contribution of Florence Nightingale, commonly known as “The Lady with the Lamp.”


Nightingale was born into an upper-middle class British family on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy and was named after the city. Florence believed that nursing was her God-given vocation. When she informed her parents that she wanted to enter nursing, they were very upset. At the time, nursing had a poor reputation, and her parents had hopes of her settling down and getting married. Instead, Florence patiently waited and was successful in persuading her parents to approve her wish to enroll in a three-month nursing training school in Dusseldorf, Germany. She returned to London and became superintendent of a hospital for “gentlewomen” in London and became known as a reformer for public health.


During the Crimean War, the British press informed the public about the horrific conditions of the wounded soldiers in Turkey. The Secretary of War asked Florence for help. She gathered a select group of nurses and under her guidance, they dramatically improved the sanitary conditions, which resulted in a significant decrease in the death rate. Florence kept copious records in Crimea that included data about how many people had died, where, and why. From this data, Nightingale realized that the lack of sanitation had been the principal reason for most of the deaths.


Her knowledge of statistics and her attention to detail and documentation led to systematic changes in the design and practices of hospitals. She devoted the rest of her life to reforming health care.


So, why Nurses Week? Nurses Week is supported by the American Nurses Association (ANA) and provides an opportunity to give recognition to nurses and educate the public about the impact nurses have on health and the prevention of disease.


Nurses Week began with “Nurse Day.” In 1953, Dorothy Sutherland, an official at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, proposed to President Eisenhower that "Nurses Day" should be proclaimed the following year in October. Although the proclamation was never fulfilled, National Nurse Week was observed October 11-16, 1954.


A bill to continue National Nurse Week was presented to Congress in 1955, however, no further action was taken as Congress ceased the practice of recognizing national weeks of any kind. Another attempt was made in 1972 for a presidential proclamation regarding National Nurse Week and was unsuccessful.


In January 1974, the International Council of Nurses proclaimed that May 12 would be "International Nurses Day." In response, President Nixon issued a proclamation that a week would be designated by the White House as National Nurses Week.


In 1978, New Jersey Governor Brendon Byrne declared May 6 as Nurses Day. By 1982, the ANA's Board of Directors formally acknowledged May 6 as "National Nurses Day." President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation proclaiming “National Recognition Day for Nurses” to be May 6, 1982. The celebration was extended to a week in 1990. The ANA Board of Directors designated May 6–12 as permanent dates to observe “National Nurses Week” in 1994 and in all subsequent years.


This year's Nurses Week theme is "Culture of safety—it starts with YOU.” ANA defines a culture of safety as one in which core values and behaviors — resulting from a collective and sustained commitment by organizational leadership, managers, and workers — emphasize safety over competing goals (


There are many ways to celebrate Nurses Week, whether you are a nurse or not. If you are a nurse, take the time to reflect and celebrate your profession. If you are not a nurse, you most likely know one since there are close to four million nurses in the United States ( Take the time to acknowledge what they do for the health of our nation each day.


Learn more about the University of Arizona Global Campus RN to BSN program.


Written by Dr. Gwen Morse, lead faculty and Associate Professor in the College of Health, Human Services, and Science at the University of Arizona Global Campus.

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