Formation of the International Council of Nurses

On 1 July 1899, the foundation of the International Council of Nurses was proposed by Ethel Gordon Fenwick (read more) at the Annual Conference of the Matron’s Council of Britain and Ireland. This meeting was to have far reaching consequences for nurses, as ICN would bind them together in professional fellowship in the years ahead by enlarging their vision through congresses and education.

Gordon Fenwick believed that to raise the standard of nursing, it was necessary to raise the standard of education of nurses and provide them with registration as evidence of that training (Bridges, 1967). In 1887, she founded the British Nurses Association (later the Royal British Nurses Association) to campaign for the state registration of nurses. It was during her visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore that she met Lavinia Dock, assistant director of the nursing department, who shared Gordon Fenwick’s passion for the rights of women and nurses.

In June 1899, the Matrons Council of Great Britain and Ireland held its second annual conference at Gordon Fenwick’s London home where she spoke of ‘the international idea’ (Bridges, 1967). Gordon Fenwick argued that nurses throughout the world would benefit from a similar body and proposed ‘That step be taken to organise an International Council of Nurses’ (Bridges, 1967, p.8).

“The nursing profession, above all things at present, requires organisation: nurses, above all other things at present, require to be united. The value of their work to the sick is acknowledged at the present day by the Government of this and all other civilised countries but it depends upon nurses individually and collectively to make their work of the utmost possible usefulness to the sick, and this can only be accomplished if their education is based on such broad lines that the term ‘a trained nurse’ shall be equivalent to that of a person who has received such an efficient training and has proved to be also so trustworthy that the responsible duties which she must undertake may be performed to the utmost benefit of those entrusted to her charge. To secure these results two things are essential: that there should be recognised systems of nursing education and of control over the nursing profession. The experience of the past has proved that these results can never be obtained by any profession unless it is united in its demands for the necessary reform, and by union alone can the necessary strength be obtained. (ICN archives)

In bringing her idea to fruition, Gordon Fenwick remarked that influential members of the nursing profession in other countries must be consulted as to the best constitution for governing an efficient International Council of Nurses.

The first meeting of the International Council of Nurses provisional committee was held at the Matron’s House, St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Between 1899 and 1900, a constitution for ICN was drafted and on 5 July 1900 duly accepted.

Gordon Fenwick E (1901). The International Council of Nurses: A Message from Its President. The American Journal of Nursing, 1(11), 785–790. http://doi.org/10.2307/3402379

Bridges D. M (1967) A History of the ICN 1899-1964 Pitman Medical, London, Ch. 21:pg 180.


Ethel Gordon Fenwick

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