Virginia A. Henderson: A Celebrated Nursing Leader


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Virginia Avernal Henderson was born in Kansas City Missouri on November 30, 1897. She was the fifth of eight children born to Daniel B and Lucy Minor Henderson (McBride, 1996). She was named after her mother’s home state of Virginia and was later educated there at a boys’ school run by her grandfather (Thomas). Henderson furthered her education at the U. S. Army School of Nursing in Washington D. C. and graduated in 1921. She attended the Teachers College at Columbia University where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree and her Master of Science Degree in 1932 and 1934 respectively. She taught there from 1934 until 1948 and in 1953 went to work at Yale School of Nursing (McBride, 1996).

During World War I, Miss Henderson, which she preferred to be called, took a temporary job caring for the wounded. After that she worked as a public health nurse in Washington D. C. and New York City. The experienced she received in the 1920’s inspired her to work as a nurse; a career she initially thought she would only stay in for a few years. It was here where she abandoned her aspirations to be an interior designer and focused on nursing as her new career (McBride, 1996).

It was her work as an educator and a researcher at the Teachers College of Columbia University and Yale School of Nursing that Henderson is most known for (Thomas, 1996). The naming of the Sigma Theta Tau International University after Henderson made her the most famous nurse of the 20th century.

On March 19, 1996, at the age of 96, after having chocolate cake and saying her good-byes to family and friends she quietly passed away (McBride, 1996).

Leadership Style

Henderson was an elegant lady who was a gracious hostess, had a great sense of humor, and was full of wisdom (McBride, 1996). She taught health professionals that they should work together in a harmonious team towards a common goal for the patients and families they served (Henderson, 2000, p. 96K). “Effective nurse leaders are those who engage others to work together effectively in pursuit of a shared goal” (Whitehead, Weiss & Tappen, 2010, p. 4). She has shown that over and over in her role as a nurse leader. The style of leadership that she has demonstrated is considered democratic. A democratic leadership is characterized by guidance rather than control by the leader (Whitehead, et al., 2010, p. 6).

Henderson possessed the leadership trait “management of attention; these leaders were able to communicate a sense of goal or direction to attract followers” (Whitehead, et al., 2010, p. 5). She claimed that excellence in nursing is dependent upon what each individual brings to it, and that it can be measured by the quality of the individual’s personal life, by contribution as a member of a community, and by the professional services he or she offers to society. Excellence, to Henderson, suggests the well-rounded or complete person (Henderson, 2000, p. 96K).

She defined the function of a nurse as doing things for patients that were not physically able to or had the required knowledge. She stated that nurses should help the patient either become healthy or die peacefully. She also taught nurses should help their patients become independent and, able to perform relevant activities for themselves as quickly as possible. She stressed the nurse’s duty is to the patient rather than to the doctor (Thomas, 1996).

Henderson taught that no member of the team should make such high demands on another that they could not do their job properly. She also said that no member of the team should be diverted from their duties by non-medical activities such as cleaning, clerking and filing (Henderson, 1964, p. 63).

Communication and Crusades

Virginia Henderson’s greatest achievement was a nineteen year research project which concluded with her publication of the five volume “Nursing Research: Survey and Assessment”, co-written with Leo Simmons and published in 1964. During this time she gathered, reviewed, catalogued, classified and cross-referenced every known piece of research on nursing published in English (Thomas, 1996). She felt proud to play a part in steering the electronic networking system of information, which was developed to provide nurses with current, jargon-free information wherever they were based. Henderson stated “no profession, occupation or industry in this age can evaluate adequately or improve its practice without research”. Her strong advocacy for nursing brings forth a challenge to all of us to identify new needs beyond the 14 she enumerated. Henderson’s believe that research in nursing is essential for nursing practice in the age of technological advancements (Thomas, 1996).

She knew that people are motivated by compassion to help others and she encouraged others to put that first. She stated that the nurse who complements the dependant, sick or well- by supplying him with strength, knowledge, or will he needs for wholeness must be judged excellent (Henderson, 2000, p. 96). Henderson was admired by a lot of her peers as well as other educational theorists. Edward Halloran’s recently edited A Virginia Henderson Reader (1995) and stated “it 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” (McBride, 1996).

Henderson believed that patients should be taught to understand their medical charts. She believed that if a patient understood their medical records and had access to sources that explained medicine that the patients would not -over-use the medical care system. She stated, “If you want to develop a mature and helpful philosophy about maintaining your health, you need to understand the means by which physicians’ clinical judgments are made and tested” (Henderson, 1996, p. 16N). This can be accomplished by communicating with the patients. The more the patients know the more empowerment they will have over their illness; they will want to do more to prevent any further complications, and the chances are greater for medical compliance.

Conflict Resolution

As a youth, Virginia Henderson’s family was quite vocal and they often stayed up late into the night discussing subjects of truth, beauty, charm or goodness. It was through these discussions, or rather arguments, that she learned how to defend her theories. She learned that her expressed views would be met with an opposing response. In her article, “Excellence in Nursing,” she is quoted as saying, “No persons brought forward as exemplifying charm, beauty, or goodness were unanimously agreed upon by the others. In fact, it was dangerous to set up one’s idol for it was sure to be knocked down” (Henderson, 2000, p. 96I).

Barriers that Henderson and other nurses had to face in the past are legal issues and nursing activities, which made the nursing profession’s position in healthcare ambiguous and misunderstood. Nurses have long struggled for rightful recognition by physicians and other healthcare members. Issues that arose were, nurses practicing independently, nurses diagnosing and treating patients. The roles of medical providers may be clear-cut in legislative controls, but human needs have always overridden legal barriers (Thomas, 1996). In the Nature of Nursing, Henderson stated ” that the nurse is and should be legally, an independent practitioner and able to make independent judgments as long as s/he is not diagnosing, prescribing treatment for disease, or making a prognosis, for these are the physicians function” (Henderson, 1964).

Henderson used her wisdom and charm to defy stereotypes. 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 (McBride, 1996). She was also passionate about our “ailing health care system”. She was glad that nurses were now recognized as providers of primary health care, yet knew that they often were frustrated because within the system, they were often unable to provide the supportive care that they believed was needed. She felt that nurses were unable to make health prevention a priority and that with more and more health agencies coming under corporate management, that it is increasingly difficult to preserve human values in health care. She thought that now, more than ever that the provision of universal health education should be instituted in grade-schools, colleges and beyond.

Role Model

Henderson is a wonderful role model for today’s nurses. She spent her adult life in search for better ways to care for the patient. She defined what is now called the Henderson Theory which organized patient care into fourteen basic needs of the whole person and includes psychological, sociocultural, spiritual, and developmental. Using these principles the nurse and patient can together work to meet these needs and attain client-centered goals (Potter & Perry, 2009, p. 50).

As a nurse I would incorporate these qualities in how I take care of my patients, whether it’s being an advocate for them, caring for their well being or sitting and talking with them. Patients are already going through the stress of being sick and they should be able to rely on us as nurses to be empathetic, caring, understanding and helping them gain back their independence.

Miss Henderson identified with her patients. She knew this was a difficult task that demanded knowledge, skills, patience, tolerance, sensitivity, and a capacity for sustained effort. She did this with her unwavering character and compassion for other human beings.