By Angela Barron McBride, PhD, RN FAAN
Virginia Avenel Henderson – Born-November 30, 1897
Died- March 19, 1996
Virginia Avenel Henderson died March 19 at the age of 98. Her ending had the warmth, style, and graciousness of her life. After partaking chocolate cake and ice cream and saying good-byes to her family and friends, she passed from one dimension to another. Miss Henderson, and she always preferred Miss to Ms., left behind a corpus of work that is the soul of modern nursing: a definition of nursing with sufficient precision and poetry to become the internationally adopted statement of who we are; three of the Principles and Practice of Nursing that elaborated on the knowledge base necessary to act in terms of the definition; a survey and assessment of nursing research that shifted nursing research away from studying nurses to studying the differences that nurses can make in people’s lives; the Nursing Studies Index that captured the intellectual history of the first six decades of this century.
Miss Henderson’s life spanned most of the 20th century. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri on Nov. 30, 1897, the fifth of eight children of Daniel B. and Lucy Minor (Abbot) Henderson. Her father was an attorney for Native American Indians. Her mother came from the state of Virginia to which Miss Henderson returned for her early schooling. She was educated at the U.S. Army School of Nursing (1921) and Teachers College, Columbia University where she completed her B.S. (1932) and M.A. (1934), then taught from 1934 until 1948.
In 1953, she joined Yale School of Nursing, a particularly fitting association, since the first dean, Annie Warburton Goodrich, had served as her mentor in her early professional years. The Yale years were a time of great productivity. Note in the references that follow the number of major publications copyrighted between 1955 and 1978.
In the last quarter century, Miss Henderson used her “emeritus” years to serve as nursing consultant to the world. The International Council of Nurses acknowledged that she belonged to the world in June 1985 when she was presented with the first Christianne Reimann Prize, recognizing that her span of influence knew no national boundaries. Indeed, her later years were characterized by many honors (e.g. honorary doctorates from University of Western Ontario, University of Rochester, Rush University, Pace University, Catholic University of America, Yale University, Old Dominion University, Boston College, Thomas Jefferson University, Emory University, etc.) and many distinguished lectures from Great Britain’s Royal College of Nursing to the Sorbonne to the Japanese Nursing Association.
Edward Halloran’s recently edited A Virginia Henderson Reader (1995) is the best source available today for a compilation of Miss Henderson’s own thinking. When you glance through that volume, you are struck with the currency of her ideas. She recognized early on the importance of an outcomes orientation, health promotion, continuity of care, patient advocacy, multidisciplinary scholarship, integration of the arts and sciences, and boundary spanning. Her elegant definition of nursing, with its emphasis on complementing the patient’s capabilities, provides a clear direction for what nursing should be–a wonderful counter force to the confusion that surrounds a health care system increasingly
preoccupied with bottom line rather than enduring values. This celebration of Miss Henderson’s life and achievements would not come close to portraying the real woman, however, if it did not include some reflections on the person. With her silky drawl, bright blue eyes, wispy curls, and beautiful clothes, Miss Henderson was the embodiment of an impish Southern gentlewoman. She was the most gracious hostess I have ever encountered, and had a wicked sense of humor.
When she took responsibility for a school Christmas party, she managed to organize dozens of colleagues into carving out ivory soap bars that would be covered with gold paper to become candleholders. In the process, a drab lounge became transformed into a luminous fairyland setting. When she met nurses who would be tongue-tied at being introduced to the Virginia Henderson, she would merrily say, “I know that you have probably thought I’ve been dead for years.”
For me, Miss Henderson was the incarnation of those Greek verities–the good, the true, and the beautiful. She was shaped by the aesthetic that produced beautiful surroundings in honey and rose-colored tones (she gave up the idea of becoming an interior designer/architect when there was a need for nurses in World War I), as well as elegant arguments embellished by references to a literature much broader than just the nursing literature. Miss Henderson, the Southern gentlewoman, regularly defied stereotype. She had the wisdom at 90 of looking into the face of a 15-year-old with blue-streaked punk hair and a nose ring, and saying, “You are beautiful,” gathering to her another Henderson disciple. She had the ability to question the fashionable emphasis on nursing process, reminding us all that problem solving does not belong to any one profession.
Even when her memory and hearing started to fail, she was not limited, because her curiosity and interest in people elicited from them an engagement in the issues that then set in motion her own creative juices. Virginia Henderson was arguably the most famous nurse of our century. Because that was the case, Sigma Theta Tau’s International Nursing Library bears her name. She was only willing to permit use of her name if the electronic networking system to be developed would advance the work of staff nurses by getting to them current and jargon-free information wherever they were based. She was proud of that living testimonial to nursing excellence. To the extent that Miss Henderson was the most famous nurse of our century, we can collectively look back with pride on where we as a profession have been, and where we are heading, as we strive
to meet Miss Henderson’s standards in the electronic idiom of the day.
I’ve also included some other information you might be interested in-
In 1979, Sigma Theta Tau members- Virginia Henderson, Eleanor Herrmann, and Anne Bavier presented a resolution to the Society’s House of Delegates during the 25th Biennial Convention. The resolution included this statement, That Sigma Theta Tau promote a national nursing library resource offering services to nurses and those interested in nursing…
As the Society’s President, Billye J. Brown stated in 1990, Virginia was the most appropriate individual in whose honor to endow the electronic library. Virginia is a living legend. She is famous for her extraordinary contributions to nursing education, practice and research. Her definition of nursing is the most eloquent on behalf of our profession. And so, with Virginia’s approval, on December 5, 1990, the Sigma Theta Tau’s international nursing library was named in her honor. Ms. Henderson has been known internationally for her preparation of the Nursing Studies Index that is one of the earliest resources available to search nursing literature. Today, the Society’s online database, the Registry of Nursing Research, is the electronic resource to register nursing research.
Virginia Henderson’s 14 Components of Basis Nursing Care:
1. Breathe normally.
2. Eat and drink adequately.
3. Eliminate body waste.
4. Move and maintain desirable postures.
5. Sleep and rest.
6. Select suitable clothes dress and undress.
7. Maintain body temperature within normal range by adjusting clothing and
modifying the environment.
8. Keep the body clean and well groomed and protects the integument.
9. Avoid changes in the environment and avoid injuring others.
10. Communicate with others expressing emotions, needs, fears, or opinions.
11. Worship according to one’s faith.
12. Work in such a way that there is a sense of accomplishment.
13. Play or participate in various forms of recreation.
14. Learn, discover, or satisfy the curiosity that leads to normal development
and health and use of the available health facilities.
Virginia Henderson’s Definition of Nursing (1966)
The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or peaceful death) that he/she would perform unaided if he/she had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him/her gain independence as rapidly as possible.
Henderson V: The Nature of Nursing: A Definition and Its
Implications, Practice, Research, and Education. Macmillan Company, New York,