Anna Caroline Maxwell is referred to as the “American Florence Nightingale” for her contributions to the nursing world in the United States. Her role in assisting military service nurses was second-to-none and helped lay the foundation for the modern day nursing profession.
Maxwell was born March 14, 1851 in Bristol, New York. She was the eldest daughter of John Eglinton Maxwell, a native of Scotland, and his wife Diantha Caroline Brown, American of English descent. Her father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to King, Ontario, Canada, where her two younger sisters were born.
Maxwell’s father had been educated at the University of Edinburgh, and she studied mainly under his tutelage, though some indication is given that she attended a Canadian boarding school for two years.
Anna Maxwell’s nursing path began at New England Hospital in 1874, where she worked as a matron. After a brief move to England in 1876, Maxwell returned to the United States and enrolled in the Boston City Hospital Training School for Nurses.
In the same year of her graduation, 1880, Maxwell was hired by Montreal General Hospital to implement a nurse training program. It was to be just the beginning of a series of jobs for Maxwell in the nursing field. A year later, the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Training School for Nurses in Boston hired her as superintendent.
Moving to New York in 1889, Maxwell was named director of nursing at St. Luke’s Hospital. One year later, she found a home at the Presbyterian Hospital of New York, initially as superintendent of nursing. When Presbyterian’s nursing school was founded in 1892, she became its first director. Maxwell would stay with Presbyterian Hospital’s nursing school, which later became the Columbia University School of Nursing, until 1921.
While working at Presbyterian, Maxwell also used her nursing expertise in the military. She trained and organized 160 nurses during the Spanish-American War. These nurses cared for 1,000 soldiers at Fort Thomas in Chickamauga, Georgia, many of whom were suffering from malaria, typhoid and measles. Before taking over, the camp’s conditions were substandard and Maxwell worked to improve the care and the surroundings at the field hospital.
Recognizing the important role nursing played in the care of soldiers, Maxwell was among the first to lobby for nurses to be awarded with military rank. The Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901 with her due diligence. In 1920, nurses were finally awarded with military rank and Maxwell helped design the U.S. Army nurses uniform.
Maxwell also trained nurses to serve in the military during World War I and often visited hospitals at the front in Europe. She was recognized for her service with the Medal of Honor for Public Health by the French government.
After retiring from Presbyterian Hospital in 1921, Maxwell spent her time raising money for Columbia University’s Anna C. Maxwell Hall. The hall, which opened in 1928, educated nurses until 1984. She co-wrote a nursing textbook as well.
Maxwell died in 1929 and was the first woman buried at Arlington National Cemetery – with full military honors. A devotion to educating nurses and her efforts to improve procedures exemplify the mark Anna Maxwell has made on the nursing profession.