Henderson Theory of Nursing

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Henderson Theory of Nursing


The Henderson theory of nursing encompasses a definition of nursing, a description of the function of a nurse, and the enumeration of the 14 components that make up basic nursing care.


The Henderson theory of nursing was developed by Virginia Henderson. She did not believe that she was setting out a theory, and preferred it to be thought of as a definition. Whether it is considered a definition or a theory, it has had a wide influence on concept and practice of nursing.

Virginia Henderson was born on November 30, 1897, in Kansas City, Missouri. She began her nursing education in the U.S. Army School of Nursing during World War I, from which she graduated in 1921. She also received a Bachelors of Science degree in 1932 and a Masters degree in 1934 from Teachers College, Columbia University. She also taught at Teacher's College, and at the Yale School of Nursing. She died March 19, 1996, when she was 98 years old. The Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Library is named in her honor.

The definition of nursing is the fundamental part of Henderson's theory of nursing. Henderson defined nursing as doing things for patients that they would do for themselves if they could, that is if they were physically able or had the required knowledge. Nursing helps the patient become healthy or die peacefully, and also helps people work toward independence, so that they can begin to perform the relevant activities for themselves as quickly as possible. Rather than focus on a particular task, Henderson focused on the patient. She saw how nursing could focus on the patient, and how it was possible to focus on developing a good nurse-patient relationship. This deeply affected her and she believed strongly that patient-focused nursing was the most beneficial kind of nursing for the patient.

Henderson also enumerated the 14 functions she believed to be part of basic nursing care. The nurse should help the patient to perform the following functions:

  • eat and drink
  • breathe
  • move
  • sleep
  • dress
  • work to gain a sense of accomplishment
  • maintain normal body temperature
  • eliminate wastes
  • keep clean
  • communicate
  • participate in recreation
  • worship
  • avoid dangers or hurting others
  • learn and discover

When the patient was able to perform all the functions by him or herself then the patient could be considered independent and no longer required the aid of a nurse.

Virginia Henderson also believed that it was important that nursing be based on evidence, and that research was a critical component of improving nursing practice. She believed all nurses should have access to literature on nursing and current nursing research to help better their practices, and to this end, she worked to develop an index of nursing.


Virginia Henderson played a very important role in the development of modern nursing. Her contributions, especially to evidence based nursing practice, are considered so important that Sigma Theta Tau's International Nursing Library has been named in her honor.

Professional implications

The booklet that Virginia Henderson wrote outlining her definition of nursing, called "Basic Principles of Nursing Care," was published in 1960 and has since been translated into more than 20 languages. It is a widely read and widely used booklet that has had a significant impact on many nurses. Henderson believed that the nurse should help the individual achieve independence as much as possible, and that the nurse should take a patient centered approach to nursing to be based in evidence and research. She also believed that a nurse should be considered an independent member of the total health care team, and that the nurse should only perform nursing functions, neither performing the diagnosis, prescription, and prognosis functions of a physician or any tasks such as serving food and cleaning that were not directly related to helping the patient with the fourteen basic nursing functions.



Parker, Marilyn E. Nursing Theories and Nursing Practice. Philadelphia: E.A. Davis Company, 2001.

Sitzman, Kathleen, and Lisa Wright Eichelberger. Understanding the Work of Nurse Theorists. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2004.


Henderson, Virginia. "Excellence in Nursing." American Journal of Nursing 100 (October 2000): 961.


American Association for the History of Nursing. PO Box 175, Lanoka Harbor, NJ 08734. (609) 693-7250. http://www.aahn.org/.

American Nurses Association. 600 Maryland Ave. SW, Ste. 100 West, Washington, DC 20024. (800) 274-4ANA. http://www.nursingworld.org.


Nursing library. 〈http://www.nursinglibrary.org/Portal/Main.aspx?PageID=4002〉 (February 22, 2006).

"Nursing Theory Page." USD Hahn School of Nursing 2003. http://www.sandiego.edu/nursing/theory/ (November 10, 2005).

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