The Nature of Nursing

Contributor: Peggy Chinn
August 23, 2018

Author – Virginia Henderson, RN, BS, MS

Year First Published – 1964 (AJN article), 1966 (Book)
Major Concepts

Widely quoted definition of nursing: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery or to peaceful death, that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge” (Henderson, 1966)


Grand Theory

Brief Description

The nurse assists the individual, whether ill or not, to perform activities that will contribute to health, recovery, or peaceful death—activities that the individual who had necessary strength, will, or knowledge would perform unaided. The process of nursing strives to do this as rapidly as possible, and the goal is independence. The nurse manages this process independently of physicians. Help toward independence is given autonomously by the nurse in relation to the following: (1) breathing, (2) eating and drinking, (3) elimination, (4) movement and posture, (5) sleep and rest, (6) clothing, (7) maintenance of body temperature, (8) cleaning and grooming of the body and integument protection, (9) avoidance of environmental dangers and injury of others, (10) communication, (11) worship, (12) work, (13) play and participation in recreation, and (14) learning and discovery. Nursing can be evaluated as a profession on the basis of the extent to which it enables the individual to achieve each of these functions autonomously.
The role and functions of professional nursing vary with the situation. If the total health care team could be seen as a pie graph in health care situations, in some situations no role exists for certain health care workers. Although there is always a role for family and patients, the pie wedges for team members would vary in size according to the following: (1) the problem of the patient, (2) the patient’s self-help ability, and (3) the help resources. Central to nursing’s goal to help patients toward independence are empathetic understanding and unlimited knowledge. Empathetic understanding grounded in genuine interest will lead to helping the family understand what a patient needs. The ultimate goal for the nurse is to practice autonomously in helping patients who lack knowledge, physical strength, or strength of will in growth toward independence. Because of this function, nurses seek and promote research, education, and work settings that facilitate this goal.
(adapted from Chinn, P. L., & Kramer, M. (2018). Knowledge Development in Nursing: Theory and Process (10th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier.)

Primary Sources

Henderson, V. (1964). The Nature of Nursing. The American Journal of Nursing, 64(8), 62–68.

Henderson, V. (1966). The nature of nursing. New York: Macmillan.

Additional notable works

( See Vera, M. (2014, August 5). Virginia Henderson – Biography and Works – Nurseslabs. Retrieved August 25, 2018, from )

  • Beginning in 1939, she was the author of three editions of “Principles and Practices of Nursing,” a widely used text, and her “Basic Principles of Nursing,” published in 1966 and revised in 1972, has been published in 27 languages by the International Council of Nurses.
  • Beginning in 1953, she rewrote the Harmer and Henderson Textbook on the Principles and Practice of Nursing based on her description of nursing.
  • The Basic Principles of Nursing (ICN, 1960), developed in part from her work on the Harmer and Henderson text, became one of the landmark books in nursing and is considered the 20th century equivalent of Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing. The ICN publication is available in 29 languages and is in current use throughout the world.
  • The Nursing Studies Index (ICN, 1963) is one of her prominent works. In 1953, she accepted a position at Yale University School of Nursing as a research associate for research project designed to survey and assess the status of nursing research in the United States. After the completion of the survey, it was noted that there is an absence of an organized literature upon which to base clinical studies about nursing. Henderson was funded to direct the Nursing Studies Index Project from 1959 to 1971, the outcome was the publication of the four-volume


Virginia Avenel Henderson (November 30,1897- March 19, 1996)

Virginia Henderson was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1897, the fifth of the eight

Henderson when she was a research associate at Yale (from

children of Lucy Minor Abbot and Daniel B. Henderson. In 1921, she received her Diploma in Nursing from the Army School of Nursing at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington D.C. In 1923, she started teaching nursing at the Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia. In 1929, she entered Teachers College at Columbia University for her Bachelor’s Degree in 1932, and took her Master’s Degree in 1934. Her strong commitment to nursing, her vibrant personality, and her foundational ideas related to nursing as a discipline led to her being known as the “First Lady of Nursing” and the “modern-day mother of nursing.”

See also

Fulton, J. S. (1987). Virginia Henderson: theorist, prophet, poet. ANS. Advances in Nursing Science, 10, 1–9.

Bishop, A. H., & Scudder, J. R. (1996). “And Gina Sews”: A Tribute to Virginia Henderson, 1898-1996. ANS. Advances in Nursing Science, 19(1), 1–2.