A History of Nurses Day and Nurses Week
©2008 by Kathy Quan RN BSN
All Rights Reserved

National Nurses Week is a time for nurses to be honored and recognized as a profession for the work that they do and the commitment and contributions they make to their communities. Cities and counties throughout the country often issue proclamations each year in recognition of the nurses in their communities during Nurses Week.

Nurses Week and/or Nurses Day are celebrated each year in May to recognize and honor the nursing profession. Themes are set each year by the international and/or national nurses associations. Many countries around the world hold additional celebrations to honor their nurses such as the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia.

The purpose is to encourage nurses to:
  • further their education and knowledge
  • continue to strive for improvements in the profession
  • encourage others to consider becoming nurses

International Nurses Day is May 12, celebrates the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who is most often considered the founder of modern nursing. The ICN (International Council of Nurses) has celebrated International Nurses Day since 1965.

In the UK, Nurses Day (and Student Nurses Day) is celebrated on May 12 in honor of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Each year there is a service at Westminster Abbey in London.

For this celebration, a lamp is taken from the Nurses’ Chapel at the Abbey and is passed along a line of nurses from one to another to symbolize the passage of information and knowledge from one nurse to another. The last person in the line places the lamp onthe high alter in the Abbey. (Florence Nightingale’s nickname was The Ladyof the Lamp.) (Royal College of Nursing)


There is also a service of remembrance on May 12 each year and the Sunday following it at St. Margaret’s Church in East Wellow, Hampshire where Ms. Nightingale is buried.

Throughout recent years, several groups of nurses have tried, without success, to remove the historical importance of Florence Nightingale to Nurses Day and Nurses Week celebration because although she brought many reforms to the nursing profession and dedicated her life to the training of nurses, they feel she doesn’t signify the multi-cultural aspect of nursing today. Each time, the efforts to change the focus have met with significant resistance.

In Canada and Australia, the nursing associations sponsor a week-long celebration which encompasses May 12. (Canadian Nursing Association and Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation)

In the U.S., National Nurses Week is sponsored by the American Nurses Association and is celebrated May 6 to 12 regardless of the days of the week.
  • Nurses Day is May 6
  • Student Nurses Day is May 8
  • National School Nurse Day is the Wednesday of Nurses Week

These permanent dates were designated in 1993 by the American Nurses Association to enhance planning and help to establish recognition of the annual event. The underlying purpose is to bring recognition to the nursing profession and to encourage young people to consider nursing as a career.

A Timeline For Recognition in the U.S.
In 1953, Dorothy Sutherland of the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare made a proposal to President Eisenhower to proclaim a Nurses Day in October 1954. Unfortunately this proclamation was not made.

In 1954, in observance of the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale's mission to Crimea, National Nurses Week was observed for the first time from October 11-16.

In 1955 a bill to continue National Nurses Week observances was introduced in Congress, but never acted upon.

After that, Congress stopped making any resolutions for national weeks.

In 1972, a resolution was proposed in the House of Representatives for the President to proclaim a National Registered Nurse day, but this never happened.

In 1974, President Nixon issued a proclamation and a week was designated by the White House as
National Nurses Week.

Nurses Day Proclaimed
In 1981, a resolution by nurses in New Mexico was supported by the ANA and various nursing organizations. New Mexico Congressman, Manuel Lujan, introduced the resolution to establish May 6, 1982 as "National Recognition Day for Nurses."

In 1982, Congress designated this as National Recognition Day for Nurses and President Reagan signed a proclamation on March 25 confirming this as well.

Nurses Week Begins
In 1990, the ANA Board of Directors voted to expand the recognition of nurses to a week-long celebration to be held May 6-12, 1991.

And in 1993, the permanent dates of May 6-12 were established for
National Nurses Week.

In 1996, the ANA made May 6
National RN Recognition Day and encouraged all nursing organizations to follow suit.

In 1998,
National Student Nurses Day was established and designated to be celebrated annually on May 8. (In the UK, Student Nurses Day is May 12.)

In 2003,
National School Nurse Day was established and set to be celebrated on the Wednesday of Nurses Week each year.

Florence Nightingale photo from the public domain

©2007-present by Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be used in any format without written permission.
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