Nursing Theories, Theory of Needs, Virginia Henderson

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Virginia Henderson is one of the most recognized pioneer nurses that came up with very vital theories that are being put into practice in nursing profession up to date.  Basically the theories in nursing demonstrate a number of realities during their stages of development depending with the interest of the nursing fraternity at that particular time. Virginia Henderson was born in Kansas City, Missouri in the year 1897. Throughout her life, she managed to earn herself a number of titles basing on her prowess in the field of nursing. A number of people referred to her as the Nightingale of the modern day nursing, others referred to her as the mother of the modern day nursing not mentioning some people who described her as the Florence nightingale of the 20th century.

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This woman started her nursing journey in 1921 after attaining a diploma in nursing from the Army school of nursing, at the Walter reed hospital in Washington DC. Her career started immediately after graduation as she served at the Henry Street visiting nurse for a period of two years. Moving forward from her first job as a nurse, she went ahead at started teaching nursing at the Norfolk protestant hospital located in Virginia. She then decided to proceed with her education 8 years after attaining her diploma by enrolling for a bachelor’s degree at the teachers college at Colombia University. She attained her bachelor’s degree in 1932. She didn’t stop there as she proceeded with her master’s degree which she attained in 1934. After finishing her master’s degree at the Colombia University, she became a member if the teaching staff and stayed there up to 1948. She then proceeded to Yale University in 1953 where she occupied the position of a research associate in the school of nursing.

The hard work and success of this woman never went unnoticed. This is because of the numerous recognitions that she received throughout her career. To start with, she received an honorary doctoral degree from a number of universities. This include pace university, university of western Ontario, the Catholic university of America, university of Rochester and the Yale University. In 1985, she gained recognition by being honored at the annual meeting held by the Nursing and Allied Health section of the medical library association.  Among her achievement is the revision of the Harmer’s classic textbook of nursing to its 4th edition in 1939. She went ahead and developed the 5th edition including a number of her personal definitions of nursing (Henderson, 1991). Unfortunately she died on the 19th of March, 1996.

Background of Theory

In most cases, Henderson referred to her definition of nursing as her concept (Henderson, 1991). One of her emphasis was on the importance of having a situation whereby the independence of the patient is increased so that the patient progress will not be delayed after the patient leaves the hospital (Henderson, 1991). She also emphasized on helping individuals to be able to gain independence in regards to doing a number of activities that will eventually lead to proper health or recovery (Henderson, 1996).

Henderson came up with 14 categories of nursing activities depending of the needs of human beings. Apart from that, Henderson described the role of a nurse in three ways. First she believed that a nurse role is substitutive, this is to say that a nurse is supposed to do some things for the patient. She went ahead and described the role of a nurse as supplementary; this is to mean that a nurse is supposed to help a patient in situations where they cannot do things themselves. Finally she described the nursing role as complementary that is working hand in hand with the patient. All these are geared towards helping the patient gain a considerable level of independence.

According to Henderson nursing is defined as, the unique function where a nurse is required to help an individual whether well or sick in doing some activities that add up to the wellbeing of the individual or otherwise peaceful death that the individual would have done by himself if he had the required strength, knowledge or will. A nurse is required to this in such a way that the individual will attain independence as first as possible (Henderson, 1996).

The 14 components of nursing based on human needs

  1. Normal breathing, proper eating and adequate drinking
  2. Body wastes should be eliminated

iii. Proper movement and maintenance of posture that is desirable

  1. Proper sleep and rest
  2. Proper selection of clothes and the ability to dress and undress
  3. Proper maintenance of the body temperature at the allowable range through the adjustment of clothing or changing the environment

vii. The body should be kept clean and proper groomed and at the same time the integument should be protected

viii. Beware of dangers posed by the environment in order to avoid injury on oneself or to others

  1. Ability to communicate with other human beings through the expression of emotions, opinions, fears or needs
  2. One is required to worships depending on his/her faith
  3. Ensure that in whatever work you do, you end up with a sense of accomplishment

xii. Participation in any form of recreation

xiii. Human beings are supposed to be in a position to learn or to discover or to satisfy their level of curiosity in such a way that it leads to proper development which is normal and healthier.

xiv. People are required to make use of the health facilities around them


                This theory has three major assumptions:

  1. Nurses are responsible for the care of patients up to the extent in which the patient is able to care for themselves
  2. Nurses are very willing to help the patients and they can devote themselves fully day and night
  3. Nurses should have university education entailing both arts and sciences

Henderson’s Theory and the Major Concepts

  1. individual

Individual have needs which are basic therefore they sometimes need help in order to gain independence, health or peaceful death. The body and mind of individuals are inseparable and interrelated.  Components that are put in consideration are the biological, sociological, psychological and spiritual components.

In other words the theory describes a patient one made of parts having bio psychological needs.

  1. Environment

This is the place in which individual develop different patterns to aid in living. This includes all the external factors that play a role in life and development. It also involves the relationship of an individual with family.

Nursing involves creating an environment that will enable an individual to perform all the 14 nursing activities without help.

iii. Health

Health is the ability of an individual to perform all the 14 activities without an aid. Nurses are entitled to promote health by preventing and curing diseases.

  1. Nursing

Nursing is the process of temporarily assisting someone who is not able to perform the 13 components independently. Nurses are meant to help patients gain a sense of independence.  Nurses are required to have the knowhow of practicing human and individualized care and they should be able to solve problems scientifically.

Application of Henderson’s Theory to the Nursing Practice

There are quite a number of applications of the theory to today’s nursing practice. First and foremost, the 14 fundamental activities as stated by Henderson are of quite importance in the nursing practice. This is quite evident in how nurses usually carries out their task in helping their patients to meet their needs be it social, physical, spiritual or emotional by looking into the patients normal breathing ability, proper eating and adequate drinking. Apart from that is the ability of the patient to eliminate body waste. These are some of the primary concerns that nurses usually address.

Secondly, it is also evident that nurses are quite devoted to their work. This is attributed to the fact that they are always available 24 hours in the 7 days of the week as they really want to help the patients gain dependence as fast as possible. Nurses are willing to help the patients in meetings their needs something that the patient or family members cannot provide.

Cases of stroke are on the rise, leading to patients getting disabilities such as paralysis. This makes the aspect of moving and maintaining a desirable posture very hard for them. Therefore in order to prevent other complications, nurses usually step in by helping the patients to move around and maintain a desirable posture by using their knowledge and skills. Apart from that, the nurses usually impart knowledge to the patient and the family members on what needs to be done. This means that once the patient leaves the hospital, they can still gain quick dependence.

Another important factor in this theory is the aspect of breathing. Henderson describes how normal breathing is very important for human life. That why we see administration of oxygen in most hospitals. Apart from that Henderson includes proper eating. This is what necessitated things like nasogastric tube insertion used for feeding patients as it helps in their nourishment. Also adding water to patients also is an application of this theory as it states that patients should have adequate drinking.

Limitations of this Theory

There are a number of limitations associated with this theory:

  1. It lacks the conceptual linkage between the physiological characteristics and other human characteristics
  2. Unclear relationship among the 14 fundamental needs

iii. Little explanation of what a nurse does in helping a patient attain peaceful death

  1. There is no concept of the holistic nature of human beings


In conclusion, it is important to note the entire theory was propagated by what Henderson believes to be the perfect definition of nursing. Her emphasis was mainly placed on the basic human needs. This has paved way for the development of other theories that deals with personal needs and the input of nurses in attaining such needs. Generally, the 14 fundamental needs as described by Henderson are very clear and self-explanatory.

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Nursing Theories, Theory of Needs, Virginia Henderson. (2019, Oct 10). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from

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