Nursing and Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony’s reform work and the development of the profession of nursing found many intersecting points. Western New York was the center of social-reform movements in the 19th century involving political rights, equal access to education, and suffrage (the right to vote)—all causes championed by Susan B. Anthony. The region was the site of many nursing “firsts” and the home of nursing visionaries who shaped the profession and its impact on society, health, and the care of those most in need. Many of these had direct contact with Susan B. Anthony as friends and colleagues in both suffrage, abolition, and human rights movements. Susan B. Anthony and other pioneers recognized that nursing, as an occupation in which women excelled as courageous, skilled, and dedicated professionals, presented a unique opportunity to advance the status of women. To learn more, read the articles below:

Rochester, NY, the birthplace of professional nursing?

Rochester holds many unique places in nursing history. What is today the Genesee Valley Nursing Association was “established in 1900 by thirty nurses from the Rochester School of Nursing, provided a refuge for nurses coming to the city who had no place to stay and is distinguished as being used by the first editorial staff of the American Journal of Nursing, whose editor-in-chief, Sophia Palmer, RN, was from Rochester."

Rochester was also the home and is the final resting place of Lillian Wald (1867-1940), a nurse who transformed care of immigrants, women and children, and people of limited income. She was the “originator" of public-health nursing and the founder of the Visiting Nurse Service in New York City. She initiated the first public-school nursing program in the United Stated and founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York City.  This daughter of Rochester worked with the same spirit, vision, and perseverance as Susan B. Anthony.

Rochester was also the site of the meeting of the New York State Nurses Association on October 21, 1902. At this meeting, the Nurse Practice Act was the primary business on the agenda, the main object being to secure a law that would “establish a uniform and definite basis for the practice of nursing…”  The keynote speaker at that convention was Susan B. Anthony, an ardent advocate for the professionalism of nursing and the establishment of training standards for all nurses. To learn more details about the Nurse Practice Act and Susan B. Anthony's role, visit our friends at the Baker-Cederburg Museum and Archives.

The Nurse Practice Act, also known as the Armstrong Act, became law in May 1903, in much the same form and language that it had been proposed at the October 1902 meeting in Rochester. The first nursing license was issued in 1904 to Ida Jane Anderson, class of 1902 from the Rochester Homeopathic Hospital..

Clara Barton—From Civil War to suffrage 

Clara Barton was the woman who became known during the Civil War as the “the Angel of the Battlefield” for her courageous, dedicated service to those who were ravaged by war and disease. She was founder and first president of the American Red Cross.  She was a resident of Dansville, NY, just a short trip south of Rochester. 

Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony became great friends because Clara Barton was an avid suffragist and worked very hard in the cause of women’s rights. Barton spoke at many suffrage conventions, including the first ever to be held in Washington, D.C. in 1869. At the 1904 convention, she held a reception at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, to honor Susan B. Anthony’s 84th birthday. When she was unable to attend a particular women’s rights convention, she often sent letters of support that were read to the attendees. In 1907 and 1910 the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention sent her greetings in appreciation for her efforts. Mary Anthony, Susan's sister, volunteered with Clara.

In 1898, Clara was speaking to a group of veterans to encourage them to stand for the voting rights of women, saying, "When you were weak and I was strong, I stood by you.. Now I am weak, and you are strong, and I ask you to stand by me and mine."

Susan B. Anthony's brother shot! The reformer becomes the nurse

In 1875, Susan B. Anthony was attending the May Suffrage Anniversary in New York City when she received word that her brother, Daniel R.—also known as D.R.—of Leavenworth, Kansas had been shot and was believed to be fatally wounded. Early the next morning she took a train to Rochester, where her sisters met her at the train station and told her that D.R. was still alive. She continued on the train to Kansas, finally reaching Leavenworth in the middle of the night of May 14.

D.R. had been shot because of something he had printed in his newspaper. The ball fractured the clavicle and severed the subclavian artery. In The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, her biographer, Ida Husted Harper, writes: “Then began the long struggle for life. For nine weeks Miss Anthony sat by his bedside giving the service of a born nurse, added to the gentleness of a loving sister. At the end of the first month, the physicians decided on a continued pressure upon the artery above the wound to prevent the constant rush of blood into the aneurism which had formed. Owing to its peculiar position this could be done only by pressing the finger upon it, and so the family and friends took turns day and night, sitting by the patient and pressing upon this vital spot. After five weeks, to the surprise of the whole medical fraternity, the experiment proved a success and recovery was no longer doubtful.

"The papers were filled with glowing accounts of Miss Anthony’s devotion, seeming to think it wonderful that a woman whose whole life had been spent in public work should possess in so large a degree not only sisterly affection but the accomplishments of a trained nurse.” (Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Volume I, page 471). D.R. made a complete recovery and returned to his job as editor of the newspaper. 

Susan B. Anthony tends her sister, Guelma

There’s a room in the Anthony House that we call Mary Anthony’s study. But it also served another purpose for a time in the early 1870s. It was the sick room for Susan and Mary’s sister, Guelma Anthony McLean. Mary and Susan took care of Guelma during her long illness with consumption. Guelma was just 20 months older than Susan and they had always been close. Guelma and her family had lived with Mary and Susan and their mother in the house at #17 Madison Street, Rochester for 8 years; Guelma was one of the fifteen who voted in the election of 1872, even though she was ill and very frail. After the trial in Canandaigua in June of 1873, Susan spent much of her time caring for Guelma at the house on Madison Street, as Mary was busy all day with her job as school principal. In November of 1873, about a year after that election, Guelma died.

The nurses who attended Susan B. Anthony in her last illness

In February of 1906, Susan B. Anthony attended a woman's rights convention in Baltimore. Although in failing health, she traveled on to Washington, D.C. where a birthday celebration was held in her honor. There she spoke in public for the last time, remembering the long years and campaigns for equal rights, naming many of the original workers in the cause who had already passed on without enjoying success in their long struggle.  She then addressed those present and uttered her most famous words “….with such women [as all of you] consecrating their lives, failure is impossible.”

She returned home and took to her bed. Two nurses attended her, Margaret Shanks and Mae Nichols. Her sister, Mary, and dear friend, Anna Howard Shaw, kept vigil at her side. The nurses were with her around the clock. Three weeks later she died, there in her home on Madison Street in Rochester, on March 13, 1906 at the age of 86.


“At her bedside when the end came were Mary S. Anthony, her sister, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, of Philadelphia; Miss Lucy Anthony, a niece of Philadelphia; Dr. Ricker, who attended her throughout her illness, and her two faithful nurses, Miss M. A. Shanks and Miss Mabel Nichols . . .” 

Mae Nichols held a diploma from Nurses Training School, Union Hospital, Lynn, MA  and was visiting Miss Lizbeth Tripp, of the Homeopathic Hospital when summoned for night duty to Miss Anthony. She was paid $56.30 for services to Miss Anthony as “the night nurse.” Later, the New York State Suffrage Association sent $50 to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) for her lifetime membership.

Margaret Shanks was born in Fort Patrick, Scotland, April 25, 1867. She came to the U.S. at age 14-15, lived in Hopewell, NY. She had no siblings and never married. She was devoted to her Christian faith, retained her Scottish brogue, committed to her “nurses’ training,” and wrote poetry. She graduated from the Training School of Nurses, Rochester Homeopathic Hospital (later Genesee Hospital) in 1897.

Shanks knew nothing about suffrage or Susan B. Anthony’s lifetime work and said to her : “I only have time for my training as a nurse.” Miss Anthony replied: “That is all that will be required of you, the routine of the sick room.”

Susan B. Anthony told everyone, “My nurses are without parallel.”

We know that Margaret Shanks remained active in the United Church, and in American Legion, and was tenderly regarded in her community.  She was forever changed by her service to the Anthonys. She was involved in preservation of the Anthony House after it was acquired by the Rochester Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1945. She told the Federation president, Martha Howard, that she could help “getting things in their proper places.”

Margaret Shanks later wrote this poem to honor Susan B. Anthony:

All Hail—thou flower of womanhood

Thy torch still burns through ages dim

Oppression felt, by kindred souls,

Engaged thy mind, the fight to win.

Thy life—a monument down the age

A Lincoln spirit, guiding star

Let us now lose the gleam, the ray

Still prompting leading from afar.

Thy place in history, stands for aye

Thy soul on High—’mid radiance bright

Lead on—we follow, heed thy call

EMANICPATE—rise to the Light