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Fisher, Alicefree

  • Joan E. Lynaugh

Alice Fisher (1839–1888)

by Frederick Gutekunst, c. 1885 [right, with Edith Horner (Hawley)]

courtesy of the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania

Fisher, Alice (1839–1888), nurse, was born on 14 June 1839 at Greenwich Hospital, Kent, the eldest daughter of George Fisher (1794–1873), and his wife, Elizabeth Alicia Woosnam. Fisher, whose father was a respected astronomer, Church of England clergyman, and headmaster of Greenwich Hospital school, was educated at home. She later worked as secretary to her father, at domestic tasks, and wrote two novels, Too Bright to Last (1869) and the three-volume His Queen (1875). After her father died in 1873 she decided, aged thirty-four, to make a life for herself in nursing. She enrolled at St Thomas's Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1875, paying her way as a lady probationer, and completed her training there in early 1876. Using her contacts from St Thomas's Hospital and recommendations from Florence Nightingale she accepted a series of challenging posts starting with an assistant superintendency at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, followed by eleven months as superintendent at the Fever Hospital in Newcastle. While there she and Rachel Williams wrote Hints to Hospital Nurses, an early training manual for nurses, published in 1877. Fisher was then selected for the superintendent's post at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, where she remained from 1877 until 1882. She was asked to take over the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and spent six months there in 1882. Next she moved to the superintendent's post at the General Hospital, Birmingham, which she held from 1882 until 1884.

In each hospital Alice Fisher faced similar problems. She needed to gain the confidence of both the trustees responsible for the hospital and the medical staff, which she did by improving the nursing care given to the patients. Often she had to raise money herself to implement improvements since, inevitably, hospital budgets supported only minimal care. Most difficult, she had to attract competent women to work in the hospital replacing the traditional and often unreliable servants. Hospital trustees sought out reformers such as Fisher when they became frustrated in their efforts to care for the patients for whom they were responsible. The major obstacle was finding and retaining people willing to care diligently for the sick. Fisher found responsible carers by starting training schools for nurses. The supervision and education of these young women became part of her role. At Addenbrooke's she substituted these students for the traditional untrained nurses and servants. With money saved from the servants' salaries she hired scrubbers to do the domestic work and then provided room and board for her students who worked for nothing.

Alice Fisher took what must have been a dramatic personal step when she accepted the superintendent's post at the Philadelphia Hospital in Pennsylvania in the United States. The high mortality among foundlings and lying-in patients, the miserable provisions for the incurably sick poor, and the dissatisfaction of the attending medical staff of the various charitable organizations of the city finally aroused guardians of the poor Anthony J. Drexel and George W. Childs to action. Childs, the socially well-connected publisher of The Ledger, Philadelphia's largest newspaper, and Drexel, a wealthy champion of working-class reform, insisted the city must make an investment in better management of its public hospital. However, they seemed unable to recruit an American nurse suited to the task. In any case, Childs was fascinated by stories of Miss Nightingale's reforms in England. To gain the co-operation of his fellow guardians of the poor Childs pledged to pay part of Fisher's annual salary. Miss Fisher negotiated a salary of $1000 for herself and the assistance of her colleague from the Radcliffe Infirmary, Edith Horner (Hawley), who was paid $600. The two nurses arrived in Philadelphia in November 1884.

The Philadelphia Hospital sheltered an unsegregated mass of about 3000 people including foundling infants and a large group of insane patients. The place was terribly overcrowded. Fisher and Horner immediately established a training school, admitting fifteen probationers in January 1885. Miss Fisher invited the public to attend the nurses' classes and attracted hundreds of curious Philadelphians. In this she emulated the strategy of Ann Preston, a Quaker physician who, in 1861, founded the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia and its training school for nurses. As was true of Dr Preston before her, Miss Fisher sought both to educate the public about her reforms and to attract some women who attended the lectures to join the training school.

Accounts of Miss Fisher invariably stressed her cultivated manner, good taste, gentility, discipline, and dedication. She fascinated Philadelphians and used her popularity to win support for reorganizing and improving the city hospital. Miss Fisher was nearly 6 feet tall, with long reddish gold hair. She was described as having a strong, intellectual face. She made Philadelphians feel better about themselves by doing good in their name. She believed that nurses must have

that inborn love of the work which is given, alas, but to a few … no calling can be found which offers so happy a life, or where labour brings so quick and inevitable a reward, or which, in spite of many undeniable anxieties, secures such absolute peace of mind.

Stachniewicz and Axelrod, 32

In 1887 Alice Fisher became ill with a recurrence of the rheumatic fever she had contracted at St Thomas's Hospital during training. Although partly incapacitated she continued to receive students and guests in her hospital quarters. In late May 1888 she suffered a heart attack and died on 3 June at the Philadelphia General Hospital. Tributes from the noted physicians William Osler and William White, a widely circulated memorial booklet, and the Philadelphia tradition of an annual pilgrimage to her grave in Woodlands cemetery indicate the impact of her brief sojourn in the United States. This quotation from Job marks her grave: 'as a servant earnestly desireth the shadow' (Job, 7: 2).


  • S. Stachniewicz and J. Axelrod, The double frill: history of Philadelphia General Hospital school of nursing (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1978)
  • E. Smith, ‘Alice Fisher’, American Journal of Nursing (July 1904), 803–8
  • E. D'Estal, ‘Flashback’, P. G. H. Alumni Bulletin (1961), 18–27 [Philadelphia General Hospital]
  • ‘Trained nurses’, The Times (11 Sept 1887)
  • A. Rook, M. Carlton, and W. G. Cannon, The history of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge (1991), 192–204
  • Z. Cope, Six disciples of Florence Nightingale (1961)
  • In memoriam: Alice Fisher (Philadelphia, 1899)
  • P. O'Brien, ‘“All a woman's life can bring”: the domestic roots of nursing in Philadelphia, 1830–1885’, Nursing Research, 36 (Jan–Feb 1987), 12–17
  • R. F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: a 300-year history (1982), 445
  • b. cert.
  • copy of will of 1 June 1888, University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Philadelphia General Hospital Collection
  • gravestone, Woodlands cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


  • BM
  • LMA
  • Philadelphia College of Physicians
  • University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Philadelphia General Hospital collection


  • F. Gutekunst, photograph, 1885, Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Philadelphia [see illus.]
  • photographs, 1885–8, Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Philadelphia
  • A. Barber, oils, 1888, Historical Society of Philadelphia

Wealth at Death

bequeathed books and personal effects to Edith Horner Hawley, the rest to her sister, no mention of value: copy of handwritten will signed by Fisher, 1 June 1888