Nursing Theory of Virginia Henderson

Virginia Avenel Henderson was born on November 30, 1897, in Kansas City, MO. She graduated from the U.S. Army School of Nursing in 1921, completed her B.S. at the Teachers College in 1932, and her M.A. at the Columbia University in 1934. Then she taught at the Columbia University until 1948. Later, Henderson became a part of the Yale School of Nursing in 1953. She continued her work until her death on March 19, 1996. She worked for the majority of the 20th century. Her work shaped the modern standards of nursing, through her theories and textbook work. Over her carrier, she has received a wide variety of honors. Henderson was presented with the inaugural Christiane Reimann Prize by the International Council of Nurses in 1985, as well as other prestigious honors in the field of nursing. She was widely beloved by the nursing community and is still referred to by such titles as “the first lady of nursing,” “modern day Florence Nightingale,” and “the quintessential nurse of the twentieth century.” She could be considered to be the most influential person in nursing of the last 100 years. Her main theory is called the “Need Theory,” and it proposed that the self-determination of the patients is essential for their well-being after leaving the hospital. This paper will cover her theory, its relevance, as well as its strong and weak points.

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Virginia Henderson is most famous for her nursing Need Theory. This theory is focused on the idea that self-determinate patients are more likely to experience faster recovery and to sustain their health after leaving the hospital. She proposed that caring for the patient’s basic human needs is essential, and that nurse can help to meet those needs. There are four assumptions of the Need Theory. The first is the assumption that nurses will care for patients up until they are independent enough to care for themselves. The second assumption is that patients desire to return to health. The third is that the nurses are willing to devote themselves to the patient during any time of day. The last assumption is that the mind and body of a persona are one. Four major concepts were described in theory: environment, health, individual, and nursing. The environment is not clearly defined, but she states that it should be supportive. Henderson describes health as a balance in all aspects of life and is directly connected with independence. In her theory, the individual has basic needs that make up health and need to be met to achieve the required nursing results. Interestingly, her idea of patients includes more than just people suffering from illnesses (Smith & Parker, 2015). Henderson’s concept of nursing requires the most explanation. Its definition was written before she started her work on the theory. This definition concerned the unique role of the nurse in aiding the patient in performing health-related activities until the patient can do them independently while doing things according to the therapeutic plan provided by a physician. However, she states that the nurse should be able to act creatively and independently if it is required (Alligood, 2014).

The main purpose of the nurse in this theory is to help individuals who cannot fulfill one or more of the 14 needs defined by Henderson. These needs make up the fourteen components of the Need Theory. These components can be separated into categories. Physiological:

  1. The need to breathe normally;
  2. The need to eat and drink adequately;
  3. The need to eliminate body wastes;
  4. The need to move and stand with the desired posture;
  5. The need to rest and sleep;
  6. The need to dress and undress in the desired clothes;
  7. The need to maintain the required body temperature through clothes adjustment or environment adjustment;
  8. The need for cleanliness, grooming, and skin protection;
  9. The need to avoid dangers from the environment, and possible injury to people around the patient.

The second category is psychological, and involves communication and learning:

  1. The need to communicate and express emotions;
  2. The need to learn, discover new information, or develop through the satisfaction of curiosity.

The smallest category concerns the spiritual and moral needs of a person:

  1. The need to worship according to the faith of the person.

The last category concerns the needs related to sociological aspects of life:

  1. The need to work with a sense of accomplishment;
  2. The need for recreation (Butts & Rich, 2013).


The writing of Virginia Henderson is not only relevant today, but is widely used in everyday nursing. The writing style is almost poetic when she describes what the nurse should be for the patient. She was clearly concerned for the wellbeing of every patient, and that is why this system is so extensive, while also being understandable to a layman. It could be said that this theory is closely connected to her personality and approach to healthcare. Henderson defined one of the most important parts of health – independent practice of health activities. While the hospital can heal a person, without independence, they will again become a patient. This type of approach to healthcare is timeless, because a person has to be able to care for his health, no matter the era. This is what led to her theories being applied to practice by most of the modern nurses, making it one of the most relevant nursing theories today (Sitzman & Eichelberger, 2015).

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Henderson states that the role of the nurse is to assist the patient until they are able to fulfill their basic needs. In this theory, she outlines 14 basic needs that every person has. Everything is written in a simple language, without an overuse of medical terms and concepts. This simplicity of language is one of the main strengths of the Needs Theory. Every point she makes is logical and relatable. Most people experienced at the very least one of those needs, so fulfilling them is a natural goal (Masters, 2014). Some minor weaknesses exist, however. Despite the concepts defined by the theory, Henderson does not provide a conceptual diagram that could show the interconnectivity of these needs. Another issue lies in the concept of “peaceful death,” which is described in the nurse’s duties. Henderson states that the nurse should be able to make the death of the person peaceful, but she does not define what is required of the nurse in this case (Smith & Parker, 2015).


Virginia Henderson is a legendary nurse. She managed to work for the better part of the century. Her writing defines the nursing today. Her books are used to teach nurses who are just starting their training. Her theory might be one of the most simple, and yet most important theories proposed in nursing, perhaps even in all medicine. With most people, this would sound hyperbolic, but her ideas truly define the field of nursing today. Hopefully, there are more people out there, who are as talented and caring as she was, all of the humanity could benefit from improved nursing and healthcare.


Alligood, M. (2014). Nursing theorists and their work (8th ed.). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Butts, J., & Rich, K. (2013). Philosophies and theories for advanced nursing practice. Sudbury, Canada: Jones & Bartlett Learning, LLC.

Masters, K. (2014). Nursing theories: A framework for professional practice. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Sitzman, K., & Eichelberger, L. (2015). Understanding the work of nurse theorists. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Smith, M., & Parker, M. (2015). Nursing theories & nursing practice. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis.

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