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Who is Lydia Darragh and why should I care?

December 2, 2011

234 years ago today, on December 2nd 1777, a nurse named Lydia Darragh saved General George Washington and his continental army in a most unexpected way. And in doing so, she played a pivotal role in the ultimate success of the army in the revolutionary war that birthed our nation.

She didn’t dress any wounds or provide measures of comfort to men in pain. She didn’t support surgeons in their bloody battlefield work of amputating limbs and extracting lead bullets. She did the thing that nurses are least appreciated for but are most skilled at…she watched and listened and thereby identified the critical moment when action or inaction would make the difference whether the outcome was life or death. She applied her powerful and well honed assessment and critical thinking skills to identify the moment that would change the future of a nation.

On the night of December 2nd, 1777, Lydia Darragh overheard the British General, Howe, planning an attack on Washington’s army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvannia. She makes note of this conversation. Anxious to get the information to the revolutionary army, she develops a plan. She requests and is granted permission to cross British military lines and travel to a nearby village to replenish her family’s supply of flour. It is during this brief journey that she has the opportunity to pass her secret discovery to a member of George Washington’s staff.

The rest, as they say, is history. General William Howe’s British army was turned back at Whitemarsh by a well prepared contingent of Revolutionary Army soldiers. The war continued for another four years with General Washington continuing to lead through the final battle at Yorktown which sealed the victory for the Americans.

Interesting as this is, why should you care? I believe we all need to step back and redefine the value of the nurse. The nurse is so very much more than a doer of clearly defined, observable tasks. In fact, the tasks – administering medications, inserting Intravenous catheters, taking vital signs, providing respiratory treatments, dressing wounds etc – can be done by many others. What the nurse brings to these activities is the sophisticated assessment and critical thinking. Administering the medication is easy. Understanding the medications method of action, appropriateness of dose for specific populations, potential interactions with other therapies, anticipated impact and potential adverse reactions is why we need the nurse. We need a nurse to do what Lydia Darragh did – to watch and listen and thereby identify the critical moment when action or inaction will make the difference in the outcome.

So the next time you’re trying to decide whether you need another nurse on that shift or not, first ask yourself what is the work required. Do you need to get things done or do you need someone who understands what needs to be done?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2012 10:02 PM

    New research on Lydia Darragh on our site that supports this stoy.

  2. person permalink
    May 7, 2013 12:13 PM


  3. person permalink
    May 7, 2013 12:15 PM


  4. person permalink
    May 7, 2013 12:15 PM


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