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National Nurses Week: Its History and Purpose

Every May 6 through May 12 is National Nurses Week in the United States. This annual event is rooted in a celebration of the legacy of perhaps the most famous nurse in history, Florence Nightingale, who was born on May 12, 1820.

Nightingale was born in Italy into an upper-class British family. Rather than marry, as was expected of a woman of her time and social class, she enrolled in nursing school in Germany. After returning to London, she was asked by Britain’s Secretary of War to organize a corps of nurses to attend to soldiers in the Crimea. Finding filthy conditions at the British base hospital in Constantinople, she, her nurses, and the healthier patients worked tirelessly to clean and improve the facility as well as raise the standards of care, ultimately reducing the death rate by two-thirds. She is also credited with introducing a kitchen catering to patients’ dietary needs, a laundry for clean linens, a classroom, and a library. National recognition of her accomplishments, dedication, and heroism helped transform the image of nursing worldwide from a low-status job to a respected profession.

The American Nurses Association, which has supported and promoted the nursing profession since 1896, formally acknowledged the first National Nurses Day in 1982, and expanded the celebration to a week in 1991. Today the week promotes the official appreciation of nurses’ contributions to health care; raises awareness about nursing as a career; and explores current challenges, ideas, and trends of thought in the field.

Each year has a different theme. The theme for 2016 is “Culture of Safety: It Starts With YOU.” The ANA defines a culture of safety as one in which safety comes before other goals and where organizational leadership, management, and processes are designed to support it. It lists its main attributes as:

  • Openness and mutual trust when discussing safety concerns and solutions without individual blame.
  • Marshaling of appropriate resources, such as safe staffing- and skill-mix levels.
  • A learning environment in which health care professionals learn from errors and proactively detect systemic weaknesses.
  • Transparency and accountability.1

For National Nurses Week the ANA is presenting a free webinar, “Culturally Congruent Care: Why Diversity Makes a Difference,” on May 10 from 1 to 2 pm ET. All year the ANA is exploring different aspects of safety with articles, webinars, and other resources on various topics. A full calendar of events and topics, including archived webinars, is available on the ANA website. Local ANA chapters as well as other health care organizations and associations may also conduct their own events.

In addition to honoring the woman who helped bring nursing into the modern era, National Nurses Week exists to highlight the value of nurses’ contributions to health care and the health of society not just to their colleagues in the field, but to the entire population.

1 “Creating a Culture of Safety,” PDF downloaded from