A Look Back: The History of Nurses Week

A Look Back: The History of Nurses Week

By Debra Wood, RN

For more than 40 years, off and on, the United States has celebrated National Nurses Week. It marks a week to think about and appreciate nurses and the work we do every day. 

“I am personally appreciative of the attention National Nurses Week brings to our work,” said Janice Mink, MSN, RN, CCRN, CNRN, CPHQ, clinical practice specialist at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). “I am incredibly honored when people thank me for being a nurse.”  

However, Mink continued, saying that “National Nurses Week is much more than a way of showing gratitude to nurses. I don’t think National Nurses Week is about me, the individual nurse, at all. For me, National Nurses Week is a time when I can let non-nurses know why it is important to be cared for by a professional nurse.

“Nursing is always advancing, and every year, we want others to know about aspects of nursing practice that impact their life and health. We celebrate National Nurses Week every year, because nursing is a dynamic profession that grows and changes to serve the needs of our nation.”

Nurses Week begins

Rep. Frances P. Bolton sponsored the bill for a nurse week, from October 11 to 16, 1954, to recognize the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean mission. But Congress did not take action. 

The first official designation occurred in 1974 when Pres. Richard Nixon issued a proclamation. At that time, he said, “America has always honored those who serve society as nurses. In recent years, however, we have come to appreciate more than ever the complex and expanding role, which nurses play in our health care system. Increasingly, the high quality of our nursing profession is making it possible for more Americans to enjoy better health services.” 

And those who have been nurses a long time will recognize nurses play an even greater role in providing high-quality health care now. 

“Nursing is an independent profession in health care,” Mink explained. “Nurses are constantly creating a body of work that includes research. This work defines our educational preparation and independent practice as nursing professionals. It is the basis for our licensure to practice. Each of us is personally responsible to our patients for the ethical and safe practice of nursing.”

A Nurses Week timeline

From 1974, several attempts at recognizing nurses occurred, including New Jersey Gov. Brendon Byrne declaring May 6 as "Nurses Day," and in 1981, the American Nurses Association and other organizations supported a New Mexico resolution to recognize nurses. 

In 1982, Pres. Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 6 to be “National Recognition Day for Nurses.” 

Annual Nurses Week celebrations did not occur until the American Nurses Association (ANA) board of directors declared May 6 to 12, 1991, as National Nurses Week. Three years later, the ANA board of directors designated May 6 to 12 as permanent dates for observing National Nurses Week. May 12 was Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The ANA has continued to lead efforts to celebrate nursing. 

“Nurses are experts in care of the whole person,” Mink said. “Because we spend so much time with people in all stages of life and health, we have a holistic view of people’s needs. This view includes their physical, psychological and spiritual states. When nurses identify a problem, we seek a solution and often that means we collaborate with other professionals to address patient problems. We want patients to get the care they need in the way they need it.”

Additionally, nurses collaborate with many health professionals and lead systems of care, Mink continued. They also advocate for healthcare issues. 

“Nurses begin their career understanding their unique position to be the advocate for the patient when they cannot speak for themselves either due to their illness or lack of understanding. But nurses also advocate for improvements to patient care processes and systems in their organizations. As we develop skills, we advocate in organizations, governments and communities for health care that works and healthy work care environments that keep us all safe.  

Every year, ANA comes up with a new theme for National Nurses Week. This year it is “Nurses: Inspire, Innovate, Influence.”

“Nursing never sleeps,” Mink said. “Literally. We are the professionals that are with patients 24/7/365. We are learning, caring, improving, researching, leading and advocating for our patients. Thank you for being a nurse.”


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