Linda Richards: America’s Florence Nightingale

Old Colony History Museum
9 min readJan 31, 2020

By William F. Hanna

Often, in the early 1920s, an elderly lady would be seen sitting near a desk on the first floor of Morton Hospital, which in those days was still centered around the original Marcus Morton mansion on Washington Street in Taunton. Everyone who worked there either knew the woman, or knew of her, and she was treated like an esteemed guest. Anyone asking about the identity of the visitor would have been informed that she was Linda Richards, an old friend of Ursula Noyes, the hospital’s superintendent. Indeed she was, but that was the smallest part of her story.

Linda Richards has been called the “American Florence Nightingale” because she, more than anyone who preceded her, was responsible for initiating high-quality professional nurses training in the United States. She is also credited with being the first recipient of a diploma from an American graduate nursing program.

Linda Richards, 1841–1930

Born in July 1841 near Potsdam, New York, Richards was the daughter of a preacher who decided to move his wife and four young daughters to a promising farm in Wisconsin. Linda was four-years-old when they left New York, but when her father died just six weeks after arriving at their new home, mother and children trekked back across the country and settled in Newbury, Vermont. There she and her sisters enjoyed a happy life in the care of her mother’s family.

Many years later, Richards wrote that her interest in nursing first began during the Civil War, when dreadful battles left thousands of men in urgent need of care. After the war she moved to Boston, where she was able to secure a job as an assistant nurse at Boston City Hospital. Her time there proved terribly disappointing because she found that the position — she was assigned to a large ward — had more in common with a domestic servant than with a nurse. Also, although her own superior was kind and helpful, she wrote that the majority of nurses were “thoughtless, careless and often heartless.” Disillusioned, she left after three months.

Despite her bad first experience, Richards was determined to have a career in nursing. In 1872, a friend directed her to the New England Hospital for Women and Children, located in the present-day Egleston Square neighborhood of Roxbury. There she befriended Dr. Susan Dimock, a resident surgeon at the hospital, who told her that a nurses training program was to open on the first of September. Richards was the first in her class of five women to register. The schedule featured 16-hour days spent both on the wards as well as in classrooms studying medical, obstetrical and surgical nursing. The first six months were especially grueling. In her Reminiscences, published in 1911, she recalled that nurses took care of six patients, both day and night. “Many a time I have got up nine times in the night,” she wrote. “Often I did not get to sleep before the next call came; but, being blessed with a sound body and a firm resolution to go through the training school, cost what it might, I maintained a cheerful spirit.

Richards completed the nursing program in 1873, but she never cared much for the attention that came her way as the first graduate nurse in her profession. She always insisted that any distinction that came to her “arises solely from the fact that I was the first student to enter the newly organized school, and so the first to graduate from it.

Shortly after completing the course in Boston, Richards accepted an invitation to assume the post of night supervisor at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. In addition to her nursing duties, she developed a modern system of record keeping for each individual patient, and she devoted herself to improving and professionalizing the recently organized nurses training school at the hospital. She is also credited with implementing the requirement that nurses wear uniforms.

At first appalled by the poverty and deprivation of so many of the patients under her care, she soon came to appreciate the innate goodness of some of society’s outcasts. “There, in the midst of all the sin and poverty,” she wrote, “were found real pearls; and no true woman can come in daily touch with a ward filled with patients without soon learning to look for and find the jewels, and thereby make of herself a stronger woman.”

Richards stayed at Bellevue until November 1874 and then returned to New England to assume the duties of superintendent of the nurses training program at Massachusetts General Hospital. This school was supervised by a separate board of trustees and Richards found that the program did not enjoy the confidence of the hospital’s leadership. She was given one year to salvage the enterprise, which she did through a combination of administrative reform, rigorous academic expectations, and incomparable personal example.

In the midst of her two and a half years at Mass. General, sadness came into Richards’ life when word reached Boston of the death of Dr. Susan Dimock, her friend and mentor. Only 28-years old, this talented surgeon was lost in a shipwreck off the Scilly Islands in May 1875. “She showed wonderful administrative ability,” remembered Richards many years later, “in addition to her unusual gifts as a physician.”

Dr. Susan Dimock of the New England Hospital for Women and Children

Throughout her long career, Richards often stated her belief that the nursing profession demands a commitment to lifelong academic and personal growth. Although her formal training had positioned her well within her field, she continually sought opportunities for more instruction. For this reason, in 1877 she crossed the Atlantic on an eight-month visit to England and Scotland, where she had arranged to observe the best nursing practices in those countries.

It was during this trip that an unexpected and life-changing opportunity presented itself. Soon after her arrival in England, Richards received an invitation to lunch at the home of Florence Nightingale, whose pioneering social reform and nursing experiences had brought her international recognition. Almost thirty-five years later Richards wrote, “. . . I can distinctly recall with what fear and trembling I walked toward the house of the woman who had for years been such an inspiration for me. . . .” The one dream of my nursing years was being fulfilled. I see her now as I write these words.” After a long and leisurely lunch, the famous English nurse advised her visitor on what important hospitals she should visit and also promised assistance in introducing the American nurse to the proper British authorities.

This pleasant lunch began a long friendship between Richards and Nightingale. Soon after the American nurse departed, Nightingale wrote that she had been impressed by Richards’ “very spirited manner.” “I have seen her,” wrote Nightingale, “and have seldom seen anyone who struck me as so admirable. I think we have as much to learn from her as she from us.” With her famous friend’s help, Richards paid extended visits to London’s King’s College Hospital as well as the St. Thomas’ Hospital, and while in Scotland, she visited Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. As she was about to return home in November 1877, she received a note from Nightingale which wished her well and said, “May you outstrip us, that we in turn may outstrip you.” These generous, inspiriting words,” wrote Richards, “filled me with pleasant anticipations and hopeful courage. . . . “

Not long after Nurse Richards returned to Boston, she was contacted by authorities at Boston City Hospital asking for her help in starting a nurses training program there. Recalling the poor morale and unprofessionalism that she had witnessed at BCH early in her career, she quickly agreed to supervise the organization of the school. Although she found her first year and a half there both rewarding and professionally challenging, her work at Boston City Hospital physically and emotionally exhausted her. She asked for, and was granted, a three-month leave of absence to regain her health, but it was ultimately more than three years before she could think about working again, and by then her days at Boston City Hospital were almost over.

In 1885, after returning to work at BCH, Richards was asked by the American Board of Missions to organize the first nurses training program in Japan. She resigned her Boston position and departed the U.S. in December 1885. After visiting several Japanese cities, she settled in Kyoto, where the school was to be located. While it’s unlikely that she had planned on spending almost five years in Japan, that’s how long it took to get the Japanese nursing program established and fully functioning. Although she diligently studied the language, lectures were given in Japanese, either by native doctors or by Nurse Richards, with the help of a translator. She also found the cultural differences striking, and none more so than the problem of gender roles. Japanese women, while sensitive and talented in nursing women and children, were reluctant to give orders to men, who were indeed just as reluctant to accept them. The school’s first class graduated in 1888 and Richards stayed on in the country until October 1890.

Undated photo of Linda Richards in Japan

After a leisurely voyage home by way of the Suez Canal, and with a stop in France, Nurse Richards worked for short periods in several hospitals in the Northeast. She spent a year and a half in Philadelphia, working at a number of institutions in that city that were in need of her organizing skills. From January 1893 to April 1894, she returned to work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury before spending the next three and a half years in hospitals in Brooklyn, New York and Hartford, Connecticut. Finally, after a return to Philadelphia for a two-year stint organizing and superintending the University of Pennsylvania Hospital’s nurses training program, Richards entered a new stage of her career.

“Several times in the course of the first twenty-seven years of my nursing life I had been asked to organize schools in hospitals for the insane,” she wrote. “Although I had always found grounds for refusal of these requests, my judgment finally told me that such schools were a necessity, and at last I entered upon this branch of work.”

That is what brought her to the Taunton State Hospital, where she served as superintendent of the nurses training school from September 1899 until September 1904. She realized that, in addition to practical skill, this field of nursing required an abundance of compassion. “The average [student nurse],” she wrote, “ does not possess a very large amount of patience or tact — two essential qualities in the making of a good nurse. In nursing the insane these qualities must be cultivated, and must grow under cultivation, or the pupil is an absolute failure.

Taunton State Hospital, ca. 1900

Aside from her time in Japan, Richards’ residence in Taunton was one of the longest of her almost forty-year career. She made many friends in the city, belonged to the Broadway Church and was well respected throughout the community. After leaving Taunton in September 1904, she spent shorter periods at similar hospitals in Worcester, Massachusetts and Kalamazoo, Michigan. In September 1910, however, she returned to Taunton and resumed her former position until March 1911, when she retired as Superintendent Emeritus of the Taunton State Hospital.

In retirement, Nurse Richards lived in Foxborough, wrote her memoirs, and maintained contact with friends and colleagues throughout the nursing profession. She came to Taunton often, and her friend Ursula Noyes remembered her many visits to Morton Hospital, where a nurses training school had been started in 1889. “She was keenly interested in all the activities and personnel, and spent her days sitting near the desk where she could see all who entered,” wrote Noyes. “No other entertainment was needed, although the Staff Physician and nurses made her happy by their courtesy and attention.

All things must end, and a debilitating stroke suffered in 1923 sent Richards into a slow but steady decline. She passed the last years of her life at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where so many of her most important relationships had been nurtured over the previous half century. She died there on April 16, 1930, a few months shy of her eighty-ninth birthday.

Upon her death, several eulogists compared Linda Richards’ life with that of her friend, Florence Nightingale, and over the decades her work has been honored in many ways. One of her uniforms is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and numerous plaques and memorials have been mounted in institutions where she worked. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, and in 2014 an exhibit on Richards was opened in the Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. Ninety years after her death her groundbreaking contributions to the nursing profession are still celebrated.

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