Against all odds, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has survived and flourished for 100 years, held together by its own 'special glue' - made up of dedication to nursing professionalism and commitment to the international idea.
The International Council of Nurses was born and raised on the busy intersection of woman's rights, social progressivism and healthcare reform. Though the idea and fundamental necessity of nursing are as old as the family and the tribe, the introduction of organised professional nursing only became a reality during the late 19th century.It was in an milieu ofgreat social change that a handful of women took up this new dimension of nursing.
The nurses who founded ICN were also deeply engaged in the international women's movement. It was the intoxicating mixture of the fight for women's rights and the development oforganised nursing that brought together ICN's forward thinking founders; Ethel Gordon Fenwick (England), Lavinia Dock (USA) and Agnes Karll (Germany) and gave birth t o the world'sfirst international organisation for health professionals and for women.
Sowing the international seed
The 1893 World Congress of Representative Women, held at the Chicago World's Fair, was the catalyst for ICN's founding. It was therethat «the seed of the international nursing movement...so full of vitality, was then sown, » according to Ethel Fenwick . By 1899 the seed had germinated and Fenwick called upon nurses of various countriesto unite in an international nursing organisation. One year later the ICN constitution was approved, with Fenwick elected as president.
The vision of ICN
These visionary nurses saw ICN as an international federation of national nurses' organisations, headed by nurses, free of state control and representing only nurses.In 1904, when the five-year-old ICN convened in Berlin, the three countries--Germany, Great Britain and the United States-- ready for federation under the ICN Constitution, were joined by Australia. Soon nurses from as far away as Japan were attracted to this new idea and began attending ICN meetings. At this point ICNhad no funds, no office and sometimes painfully slow communication (mail and telegraph) among members. Participants used their own personal funds to attend meetings and conduct business, but nonetheless membership continued to grow.
Wars in Europe Cast Their Shadows
As the devastation of Europe at war in 1914-18 shocked the world and nurses mobilised to serve on the battlefields, nurses at the ICN, now headed by Hennie Tscherning of Denmark, could only just hold on and grieve for their lost and separated comrades. It wasn't until 1922 that Tscherning was able to convene ICN leaders in Copenhagen andto begin picking up the pieces of the organisation and its mission.
At this low point the next President, Sophie Mannerheim of Finland, proved to be the right leader for ICN. She forged links with international nurses while, at the same time, fighting off efforts by the League of Red Cross Societies to direct post-war nursing globally. Denmark's Christiane Reimann, who became the first paid ICN secretary in 1922, also played a crucial role. An accomplished nurse who spoke and wrote several languages, Reimann willingly dipped into her own funds to accomplish ICN goals, and she constantly travelled seeking to attract more national nurses' associations (NNAs) to join ICN. This stimulated many countries to establish educational programmes for nurses and to form NNAs, includingChina, who joined the ICN in 1922.
As the 1930s drew to a close it became obvious to most that war was again on the horizon. The German Nurses Association, a founding member of ICN, was disbanded by the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, as was the Italian NNA. In 1939, the ICN offices in London seemed vulnerable aswar broke out andHitler moved west. Then president Effie Taylor packed up and moved ICN records and office to her offices at Yale University in New Haven. Three years later ICN's London offices were destroyed by bombs. Throughoutthe war period ICN aided thousands of displaced nurse refugees by keeping records and assisting in their ability to practice in new locations.
The Post-war Surge
In 1947, ICN was able to once again convene an international nursing Congress, this time in Atlantic City, New Jersey,where the new President, Gerda Hojer of Sweden, welcomed 6,500 nurses. In a spirit of reunion and rejuvenation, ICN prepared itself for renewal. The membership committee reached out, seeking and reviewing membership applications fromNNAs in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. By 1957, ICN included 46 national associations with 17 countries in associate status. The new members illustrated the true internationalism of the ICN: Haiti, Korea, Turkey, Chile, Ceylon, Jamaica, Luxemborg, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Trinidad/Tobago, Zambia, Southern Rhodesia, Barbados, Columbia, Ethiopia, Iran, Liberia, Malaya, Panama, Uruguay, Yugoslavia-- and several countries separated by war re-joined-- Italy, Germany, Austria, and Japan.
Following its relocation to Geneva, Switzerland in 1965, ICN was able to further its international activity, with direct working links to the United Nations andthe World Health Organisation and a strengthened relationship to the International Labour Organisation, where ICN officially represented nurses on employment issues. Changing economies and conditions for women's work in regions of Africa, Asia, South Pacificand Latin America helped enhance nurses' ability to create national association,and thereby join ICN.
However, the Cold War deeply affected ICN. Neither Russia nor its Soviet bloc members joinedICN after the war. The NNAs that were previously members of the ICN federation--Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and, until 1957, Yugoslavia--now were reluctantly classified by the ICN Board as «temporarily inactive.»
Discrimination is Challenged
A long simmering issue finally came to a head in 1973 when the ICN insisted that the South African Nurses Association fully integrate its association and Board or face expulsion. The vote ona motion to expel South Africa, introduced by the Swedish Nurses Association and the Nurses Association of the Netherlands, was only avoided by the abrupt resignation of the South Africans. ICN had, after decades of debate, taken the painful but final step to eject one of its oldest member nations to show its revulsion against racism. Today, a large and inclusive South African nursing association, DENOSA, is a very active ICN member.
By 1989 when Asia's ICN President, Mo-Im Kim of Korea (currently Korea's Minister of Health), greeted 7,000 nurses atICN's 19th Quadrennial Conference in Seoul , the ICN federation counted 97 member countries, and when current president, Kirsten Stallknecht of Denmark took office in 1997, ICN membership had grown to include 115 countries.
As ICN moves forward into its second century, representing millions of nurses in 118 countries, nursing looks forward to a future as rich with possibilities as its heritage is in accomplishments. From Florence Nightingale's guiding light, through the wisdom of Virginia Henderson and on to the challenges and promise of tomorrow, the International Council of Nurses remains actively committed to the service of the world's nursing profession and better health for all.