From Florence Nightingale to Clara Barton, Mary Eliza Mahoney, Dorthea Dix, and even Mary Todd Lincoln, women throughout history have served as trailblazers who shaped the nursing profession we know today.  

“During Women’s History Month this March, we honor nurses who recognized the power of one person to make a difference,” said ONS President Laura Fennimore, DNP, RN, NEA-BC. “Nurses have fearlessly challenged the status quo, raised their hands, spoke up, and built the foundation for quality cancer care. I am proud to stand with more than 35,000 ONS members who carry these proud traditions to the forefront of cancer research and care.” 

Learn more about five historic oncology nurses who, in 2002, were each awarded ONS Lifetime Achievement Awards for their outstanding contributions to cancer care, education, and research. 

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, born in 1851, was a leader in the early care of patients with terminal cancer. In 1896, at age 45, she began nurse’s training at the New York Cancer Hospital (now Memorial Hospital) and dedicated the second half of her life to helping patients with cancer who were poor. She traveled through the city’s lower East Side to care for patients with cancer, a disease often stigmatized and misunderstood in the early 19th century. To prove cancer wasn’t contagious, she invited female patients to live with her. In 1899, after successfully opening a 20-bed hospital for female patients with cancer, Lathrop took the name Sister Mary Alphonsa and lived the rest of her days as a nun in the Servants of Relief of Incurable Cancer of the Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, a charity for female patients with cancer. She died in 1926, but her legacy lives on in seven nursing care facilities around Hawthorne, NY, and five others throughout the United States.  

Katherine Nelson, RN, BS, MA, EdD, was born in 1907 and became a leader in cancer nursing education. As the Great Depression was ending, she enrolled in John Hopkins Hospital’s School of Nursing and went on to graduate from Columbia University with a degree in clinical teaching and supervision. Throughout her career, she developed the world’s first advanced clinical program in cancer nursing at Memorial Hospital, the United States’ first course in cancer nursing at the university level at Columbia, consulted in nursing schools across Southeast Asia, conducted an institute on nursing education in Portugal, and won the Francisco Gentil Medal for her improvements to cancer nursing. Nelson was Teacher College’s first assistant and associate professor of nursing education, where she taught research courses, among cancer nursing and other curricula. In 1980 she was the first nurse recipient of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS’s) Distinguished Service Award. She was at the first national ACS conference in Chicago in 1973 and presented at ONS Congress in 1976. She was a mentor to Lisa Begg, one of ONS’s founders. Nelson sat on the advisory board to ONS’s early Board of Directors and was an ONS charter member. 

Virginia Barckley, RN, MS, born in 1911, was a leader in cancer advocacy. Shortly after becoming a nurse in 1943, she started volunteering with ACS. She spent her career as a nurse consultant for the Pennsylvania State Department of Health and ACS, which sent her to all 50 of the United States and other nations. ACS’s work-study program was one of the many innovations she initiated for improving nurses’ knowledge of cancer. In 1973, she co-organized the first National Conference on Cancer Nursing, which attracted more than 2,500 participants. The event was a catalyst that lead to ONS’s own founding. She sat on the advisory board to ONS’s early Board of Directors and was a charter member. Barckley also organized Peru’s first cancer conference and authored a manual on cancer nursing, which the Union Against Cancer distributed to developing countries.  

Renilda Hilkemeyer, RN, BS, DPS, with Barckley, laid much of the groundwork for ONS and was a leader in cancer nursing administration and clinical practice. Born in 1915, she helped organize the first National Conference on Cancer Nursing, joined Barckley in organizing the conference in Peru, and sat on the Advisory Board to ONS’s Board of Directors. She was an ONS charter member and on the ONS Board of Trustees from 1986–1987. Hilkemeyer’s career spanned more than 45 years in ACS, where she held multiple positions and made numerous contributions. She worked as a cancer consultant for the Missouri Division of the Bureau of Cancer Control and developed programs to teach cancer nursing to professionals. From 1955 until her retirement, she was director of nursing for M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Texas, where she grew the nursing staff from fewer than 200 to more than 1,000. In 1991, she earned honorary membership, an ONS tribute for those who have made significant contributions to oncology nursing, demonstrated sustained interest and support of ONS at the national level, and exhibited conduct consistent with organizational values. 

Jeanne Quint Benoliel, RN, DNSc, FAAN, was born in 1919. She was a leader in cancer nursing research and education, with a career spanning 35 years. In 1962 she began her role as a research sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was the only woman and nurse on the team. In 1969 she was the first nurse to earn a DNSc degree. Benoliel was a published author through and a member of ONS, among other organizations like ACS, American Nurses Association, American Academy of Nursing, and the International Workgroup on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Among other awards for her contributions to research and education, in 1996 she earned the ONS Distinguished Researcher Award and in 2000 the American Academy of Nursing designated her as a Living Legend, one of nursing’s highest recognitions. 

These historic women are five of the 12 oncology professionals featured in ONS’s book It Took Courage, Compassion, and Curiosity—Recollections and Writings of Leaders in Cancer Nursing: 1890–1970, published in 2001. It is available on Amazon.