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The trail-blazing women who pioneered modern end of life care

Posted on March 28, 2022

Ask the Expert

By Islands Hospice Staff
For Women’s History Month, we are highlighting some of the women pioneers who played a key role in building the foundation for our practice of bringing care, comfort and compassion to people facing life-limiting illnesses.

Although the concept of hospice has existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1970s that hospice care became a popularized health care practice in the US.

The modern hospice movement started with one determined woman who had the courage and leadership to share her beliefs and philosophies on medical care across cities and oceans. She paved the way to a whole new system dedicated to helping millions of patients die with comfort and dignity and helped other women and medical leaders develop the practice and philosophy of end-of-life care.

For Women’s History Month, we are highlighting some of the women pioneers who played a key role in building the foundation for our practice of bringing care, comfort and compassion to people facing life-limiting illnesses.

Dame Cicely Saunders

Most people credit the founding of modern hospice care to English nurse and social worker, Dame Cicely Saunders. Born in 1918, Dame Cicely initially went to St. Anne’s College in Oxford, but after the outbreak of World War II, she changed course and enrolled as a student nurse at St. Thomas’ Hospital. After the war, she returned to St. Anne’s and completed her degree in Public Social Administration before becoming a Lady Almoner, now known as a social worker.

At the start of Dame Cicely’s career, she was involved with caring for terminally ill patients and recognized that they required a different type of health care. She believed in a system that was patient-centered, ensuring that care was respectful of and responsive to the individual’s preferences, needs, and values, not just one’s medical symptoms.

Dame Cicely eventually became a doctor and opened St. Christopher’s Hospice in London where patients received expert care and could spend their remaining moments in peace and comfort.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

In 1963, Dame Cicely gave a guest lecture at Yale University, discussing specialized care for the dying. In the 1970s, hospice care began taking root in the United States after physician Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross released her book titled “On Death and Dying” in 1969. This book became a bestseller and made Dr. Kubler-Ross an internationally renowned author. Her work highlighted the “five psychological stages of dying” and the new revolutionary way of dealing with dying patients, which helped to extend Dame Cicely’s hospice movement into the U.S.

Florence Wald

After a trip to England to visit St. Christopher’s Hospice in the 1960s, Florence Wald returned to the U.S. to implement a feasibility study to assess the need for a hospice in Connecticut. Since then, Wald’s work has influenced the development of hospice care throughout the country, establishing her as a pioneer of the hospice movement in the U.S.

Wald’s medical career kicked off as a staff nurse with the New York Visiting Nurse Service, which eventually led her to be appointed dean and associate professor of psychiatric nursing at Yale University School of Nursing in 1959. She later served as a clinical associate professor while playing an essential role as member of the board and planning staff of Hospice Incorporated in Connecticut, the first hospice in the United States.

By envisioning the need to maximize quality of life for the terminally ill and bringing the hospice model of compassion and dignity in death to the U.S., Florence Wald helped lead the way to the hospice we know today.

Hospice Today

Today, more people choose to spend their final days at home than in hospitals, a remarkable historic change. While hospice care has evolved since it was first introduced, we thank these trailblazing women for spearheading compassionate health care and grounding us in our mission of keeping patients at the center of care. We also are proud to work alongside amazing women leaders in hospice, including our CEO Jen Eaton, who help to facilitate high-quality care for ʻohana across Hawaiʻi.

Learn more

Read more about the history of hospice care via the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the American Sentinel College of Nursing and Health Sciences.