Lavinia Dock was born on February 26, 1858 to an upper middle class family. She was one of six children and they lived comfortably, receiving a proper Victorian education in art, music, literature, and language. She knew at an early age that she wanted to become a nurse and after high school she went on to study at the Bellevue Hospital school for nurses in New York City. After graduation, she worked as a visiting nurse for a variety of charitable organizations, supervised a ward in a temporary hospital for those suffering from yellow fever woking with Jane Delano at a Florida hospital. Jane later founded the Red Cross Nursing Association. Lavinia also went to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where she was able to help flood victims.
In 1890, she wrote Materia Medica for Nurses, the first nurses’ manual on drugs. The publication was financed by her father and it was a good investment: the book became the standard nursing school text on the subject and sold more than 100 000 copies.
That same year she was appointed assistant superintendent of nurses at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital. At Hopkins, Dock taught first year classes and was responsible for most of the ward instruction. Even though she was born into a fairly prominent family and enjoyed a measure of privilege, she devoted her life to improving the health of the poor and the profession of nursing.
Eventually, Dock left John Hopkins to join her friend, Lillian Wald, at the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Dock moved into the Settlement, where she worked as a visiting nurse. The Henry Street Settlement provided Dock with social, political, and emotional support to sustain her during her long career of professional and political activism.
She gave up nursing around the age of 50, but dedicated her energies to other causes such as improved working conditions, birth control, and women’s right to vote. Dock who was passionate, compassionate, and unconventional, soon became an ardent pacifist and then a militant suffragist. She was first arrested in 1896 for attempting to vote. She then joined the National Women’s Party, the most radical wing of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1912, she joined a group of women making a pilgrimage on foot from New York City to Albany, NY, in an effort to gain votes for women in New York. She marched to Washington, DC, to demand the vote. She persisted in demonstrations at the gates of the White House, was jailed on several occasions, and served sentences at the harsh Occoquan workhouse in Virginia. As she later described these experiences: “It was a great joy to do a little guerilla war in that cause, and I believe that going to jail gave me a purer feeling of unalloyed content than I ever had in any of my other work.”
Her passion was not confined to the United States. She was extremely active in international nursing organizations In 1947, when the International Council of Nurses organized the first postwar gathering of nurses around the world to convene in Atlantic City, the United States government opposed any invitation being sent to Russian nurses. Dock, then 89 years old, was outraged. She wrote furious letters to George Marshall, the Secretary of State, and a most emphatic apology to the Ambassador of the Soviet Union to whom she introduced herself as “a friend of the Russian Revolution” and “a member of the American Council for Friendship with Russia.” She then deplored “the present wave of wicked, sad, and lamentable unkindness to the USSR” due to the “ascendancy in this country of reactionary elements typified in our millionaire corporations” wanting “oil, land, and the subjugation of workers of all countries. . . .”
She returned to Pennsylvania in 1922 and the 5 Dock sisters, all unmarried, lived together at the family farm near Fayetteville. Lavinia gradually lost her hearing, and although she seldom left home, she worked diligently with Isabel Stewart on an abridged version of A History of Nursing, the popular 2 volume work originally coauthored with M. Adelaide Nutting. Dock believed that nursing would not be fully accepted until its history had been soundly documented. She felt if nursing was going to be the profession that the early leaders envisioned, nurses would need the power and respect that only gender equality could offer. She is quoted as saying, “We owe the existence of our profession to the womens’ movement. We owe it all that we are, all that we have of opportunity and advancement.”