Virginia Henderson – The First Lady of Nursing


Virginia Avenel Henderson (November 30, 1897 – March 19, 1996) was a nurse, theorist, and author known for her Need Theory and defining nursing as: “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.”

Henderson is also known as “The First Lady of Nursing,” “The Nightingale of Modern Nursing,” “Modern-Day Mother of Nursing,” and “The 20th Century Florence Nightingale.”

Early Life

Virginia Henderson was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1897, the fifth of the eight children of Lucy Minor Abbot and Daniel B. Henderson. She was named after the State her mother longed for. At age four, she returned to Virginia and began her schooling at Bellevue, a preparatory school owned by her grandfather William Richardson Abbot.

Her father was a former teacher at Bellevue and was an attorney representing the Native American Indians in disputes with the U.S. Government, winning a major case for the Klamath tribe in 1937.


Henderson received her early education at home in Virginia with her aunts, and uncle Charles Abbot, at his school for boys in the community Army School of Nursing at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C.

In 1921, she received her Diploma in Nursing from the Army School of Nursing at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington D.C.

In 1923, she started teaching nursing at the Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia. In 1929, she entered Teachers College at Columbia University for her Bachelor’s Degree in 1932, and took her Master’s Degree in 1934.


In 1921 after receiving her Diploma, Henderson worked at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service for two years after graduation. She initially planned to switched professions after two years, but her strong desire to help the profession averted her plan. Throughout the years, she helped remedy the view of nurses in part through exhaustive research that helped establish the scholarly underpinnings of her professions.

From 1924 to 1929, she worked as an instructor and educational director in Norfolk Protestant Hospital, Norfolk, Virginia. The following year, in 1930, she was a nurse supervisor and clinical instructor at the outpatient department of Strong Memorial Hospital, Rochester, New York.

From 1934 to 1948, 14 years of her career, she worked as an instructor and associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

Since 1953, Henderson was a research associate at Yale University School of Nursing and as a research associate emeritus (1971 -1996).

Henderson when she was a research associate at Yale
Henderson when she was a research associate at Yale

Throughout her career, she traveled the world at the invitation of professional societies, universities, and governments to share and inspire not just nurses, but also other health-care professionals.

She consistently stressed a nurse’s duty to the patient rather than to the doctor and her efforts provided a basis to the science of nursing, including a universally used system of recording observations of the patient and have helped make nurses far more valuable to doctors.

Need Theory

Main Article: Virginia Henderson’s Need Theory

Among her other works, Henderson’s widely known contributions to nursing is the Need Theory. The Need Theory emphasizes on the importance of increasing the patient’s independence and focus on the basic human needs so that progress after hospitalization would not be delayed.

There are 14 components based on human needs that make up nursing activities.



Beginning in 1939, she was the author of three editions of “Principles and Practices of Nursing,” a widely used text, and her “Basic Principles of Nursing,” published in 1966 and revised in 1972, has been published in 27 languages by the International Council of Nurses.

Her most formidable achievement was a research project in which she gathered, reviewed, catalogued, classified, annotated, and cross-referenced every known piece of research on nursing published in English, resulting in the four-volume “Nursing Research: Survey and Assessment,” written with Leo Simmons and published in 1964, and her four-volume “Nursing Studies Index,” completed in 1972.

Principles and Practice of Nursing

Henderson co-authored the fifth (1955) and sixth (1978) editions of Textbook of Principles and Practice of Nursing when the original author, Bertha Harmer, died. Until 1975, the fifth edition of the book was the most widely adopted nursing textbook in English and Spanish by various schools of nursing.

At age 75, she began the sixth edition of the Principles and Practice of Nursing text, over the next five years of her life, she led Gladys Nite and seventeen other contributors to synthesize the professional literature she completed indexing. During her 50-year career in nursing and opportunity to review the writings of all principal authors who wrote in English, she fashioned a work that both thoroughly criticized health care and offered nurses an opportunity to correct the shortcomings. The book, operating on two levels, argued that health care will be reformed by the individual nurses who will enable their patients to be independent in health care matters when patients are both educated and encouraged to care for themselves. She took this philosophy to new heights by eliminating medical jargon from the text and declaring it as a reference for those who want to guard their own or their family’s health or take care of a sick relative or a friend.

Basic Principles of Nursing Care

Book cover of Basic Principles of Nursing by Virginia Henderson
Book cover of Basic Principles of Nursing by Virginia Henderson

In 1953, she was completely rewriting the Harmer and Henderson Textbook on the Principles and Practice of Nursing when she utilized her description of nursing. After the textbook was published, Henderson was asked by the International Council of Nurses to write an essay on nursing that was considered applicable in any part of the world and relevant to both nurses and their patients, sick or well. The Basic Principles of Nursing (ICN, 1960) resulted from this and became one of the landmark books in nursing and is considered the 20th century equivalent of Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing. The ICN publication is available in 29 languages and is in current use throughout the world.

Nursing Studies Index

The Nursing Studies Index (ICN, 1963) is one of the prominent works of Henderson. In 1953, she accepted a position at Yale University School of Nursing as a research associate for research project designed to survey and assess the status of nursing research in the United States. After the completion of the survey, it was noted that there is an absence of an organized literature upon which to base clinical studies about nursing. Henderson was funded to direct the Nursing Studies Index Project from 1959 to 1971, the outcome was the publication of the four-volume Nursing Studies Index, the first annotated index of nursing research published between 1900 and 1960.

Awards and Honors

There are numerous honors and awards bestowed upon Henderson.

She received honorary doctorate degrees from the Catholic University of America, Pace University, University of Rochester, University of  Western Ontario, Yale University, Rush University, Old Dominion University, Boston College, Thomas Jefferson University, Emory University and many others.

In 1977 she was created an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. On the subsequent year, she was created an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom for her unique contribution to the art and science of nursing.

In 1985, Henderson was honored at the Annual Meeting of the Nursing and Allied Health Section of the Medical Library Association. At the same year, she received the very first Christiane Reimann prize from the International Nursing Council (ICN), the highest and most prestigious award in nursing due to the transnational scope of her work.

In 1988, she was honored by the Virginia Nurses Association when the Virginia Historical Nurse Leadership Award was presented to her.

Virginia Henderson. Photo via: lewebpedagogique
Virginia Henderson. Photo via: lewebpedagogique

The Virginia Henderson Global Nursing e-Repository or The Virginia Henderson International Nursing Library was named in her honor by the nursing society, Sigma Theta Tau International, for the global impact she made on nursing research. The library, in Indianapolis, has been available in electronic form through the Internet since 1994.

In 2000, the Virginia Nurses Association recognized Henderson as one of the 51 Pioneer Nurses in Virginia.

She is also a member of the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.


Henderson's tombstone Photo via:
Henderson’s tombstone Photo via:

Henderson died on March 19, 1996 at a hospice in Branford, Connecticut, she was 98. Her remains were interred in her family’s plot of  the churchyard of St. Stephen’s Church, Forest, Bedford County, Virginia.


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  3. Mcg, R. (1996, March 21). Virginia Henderson, 98, Teacher of Nurses, Dies. The New York Times. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from
  4. Smith, J. P. (1985), FIRST CHRISTIANE REIMANN PRIZE AWARDED TO VIRGINIA HENDERSON. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 10: 303. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.1985.tb00822.x
  5. Virginia A. Henderson (1897-1996) 1996 Inductee. (n.d.). Virginia A. Henderson (1897-1996) 1996 Inductee. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from
  6. Virginia A. Henderson (1897-1996) 1996 Inductee. (n.d.). Virginia A. Henderson (1897-1996) 1996 Inductee. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from
  7. Virginia Avenel Henderson, RN, MA. (n.d.). – Virginia Henderson International Nursing e-Repository. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from
  8. VIRGINIA HENDERSON. (n.d.). Virginia Henderson and her Timeless Writings. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from

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