Margaret M Allemang Centre for the History of Nursing
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Margaret M. Allemang Centre for Nursing History

Editor: Natalie Riegler, RN, PhD. 3 Dromore Crescent, Willowdale, Ontario, M2R 2H4.
TEL: 416-221-5632 E-MAIL:


MUSINGS: "The Use and Misuse of Nursing History." By NNR.

Niggling at the back of my mind is the advertisement placed by The Hospital for Sick Children in the November 1990 issue of The Registered Nurse. You know, the ad on p.43 of the RNAO publication. Take a look. It juxtaposes the photograph of Elizabeth McMaster, c1890s, with a picture of a 1990s nurse. We should be pleased that the hospital recognizes that nursing has a history and that it has been brought forward to the present. But at what cost?

There is nothing wrong with Sick Kids showing us "the difference between being a nurse" (referring to the 1890s) and "being a nurse" (referring to the 1990s). That is innocuous enough--after all, we all know that there are bound to be some changes due to the progress of science in the past hundred years. The error is to compare the founder of the hospital with a staff nurse looking after a premie.

I consider this use of history an abuse of nursing's past. Judy Young, a nurse historian, has been shedding light on McMaster at Sick Kids. What does she say about McMaster? Well, of course you should read Judy's articles yourself, but let me give a synopsis.

McMaster, born in 1847 and married at the age of seventeen, founded Sick Kids in 1875. She and a committee of women managed the hospital for seventeen years. In 1889, at the age of forty-two and a widow with four children, she went off to Chicago to train as a nurse at the Illinois Training School. Upon her return to Sick Kids, in 1891, she became the Lady Superintendent. By 1892 the hospital had come under the control of a male Board of Trustees. McMaster found it difficult to change from being the founder to being a hospital manager. As Young notes, McMaster's problem lay in "relinquishing power." Furthermore, there were "philosophical differences with an unyielding Chairman of the Trustees." John Ross Robertson was the chairman. So Elizabeth resigned from the hospital.

In using the picture of McMaster, Sick Kids is relying on the fact that most (if not all) of the readers won't recognize her. Because if they did (and here is a strong argument for teaching the history of nursing) they'd know that McMaster has the right to be compared with hospital founders, Presidents or CEOs of hospitals or the Vice-President of Nursing, not with the bedside nurse. After all, before the running of the hospital was taken over by the men in 1892, McMaster (as President and Hospital Secretary) and her committee handled "finance, fund raising, hiring, supervision of nurses and servants, purchasing, and approval of admissions and discharges." They also received the applications from the physicians "for appointments" to the hospital. This committee of women rotated weekly as daily supervisors of the household. Members who failed to attend the monthly business meeting for three consecutive months were dropped. As the need for more beds grew, McMaster moved the functioning hospital four times between 1875 and 1886. Her hospital had grown from six cots to forty beds. Can you imagine the administrative skill that was needed to accomplish these moves?

If we accept the comparison to be between one nurse and another, then read the fine print about the changes in nursing, as today's Sick Kids sees them--and it doesn't "mean uniforms." It means "more intense involvement, complex patient care assignments and greater patient/family responsibility." I believe that this underestimates the work and role of the nurse in the 1890s.

Nurses need patients. So who were they one hundred years ago? Sometimes, they were `sick children destitute and friendless' or they may have had parents who were too poor to attend them. As for types of cases? Well, for example, there were accidents, burns, fractures and orthopaedic conditions related to tuberculosis or congenital deformities. Many children were "confined to bed for long periods with splints and weights, some staying months and years." In 1889, the average length of stay was sixty-four days. Surely, the involvement here would be as "intense" and the "patient/family responsibility" would be as great as in the 1990s. Envisage the nursing care needed for the patient with TB of the bone. Imagine the hazard to the nurse in looking after someone with TB.

McMaster cared about the children and their families. The hospital environment, which she created, reflected this. In 1884, there was a `silent chamber' for the `very sick' child. Now we call it the quiet room or the sanctuary. This was a "peaceful place" where a mother could remain with her dying child. Those of us who thought that the use of an aquarium was a idea of the 1970s to promote well-being and stimulate calmness will be surprised to know that in 1886, the hospital had an aquarium which `provided much interest' for the sick youngster. McMaster was not alone. Her staff worried about where to place children after hospital discharge. In the late 1800s where did you refer the "incurably ill, severely retarded, or orphaned" child?

Who were the nurses? Well, some were good, some were not so good. Some had dependent children; they had to work to support their family. In 1886, McMaster employed her first trained nurse, Hannah Cody (an 1884 graduate of TGH). Cody replaced the Matron as Lady Superintendent. In that same year McMaster took in one pupil nurse for training. Sick Kids was, like the other hospitals in the community, beginning to employ trained and pupil nurses.

The Sick Kids of today says that it offers "professional advancement and continual learning opportunities." How does this differ, in principle, from the 1890s. In that era of nursing education and practice, McMaster recognized the need for educated nurses and sought to give them the best training available at the time. By 1890, doctors were giving evening lectures and the hospital was providing textbooks on nursing and physiology. Remember now, texts for nurses were just starting to be published. We know that the nurses of that period worked long hours and that the classes were an add-on after the working hours. Unless the nurses in the 1990s have Leaves of Absence with pay, they are going probably to school, still, after a day's work of eight to twelve hours.

As much as I am pleased to read that nurses at Sick Kids can practise "nursing in a hospital where nurses are given total hospital support," my concern is with the message conveyed through the use of history. First, McMaster deserves to be compared with a peer group and I think Sick Kids does a disfavour to this woman who became a nurse after she founded and managed the hospital. I regard her conflict, between herself (as Lady Superintendent) and the Chairman of the Board, to be as common a feature today as it was then.

Secondly, I am of the opinion that her nurses worried about their patients as much as the nurse today and that, given the state of medicine then, they were as emotionally and physically exhausted after a labour-intensive shift as the nurse today. Phrases, such as intense involvement, complex patient care assignments, greater patient/family responsibility, professional advancement, continual learning opportunities and total hospital support can describe both eras. The difference in nursing care provided by today's nurse and McMaster's nursing staff is related to the high tech-environment; the concern and the person-caring is still the same.

What do you think?



Dr. Meryn Stuart, PhD. Ottawa, received the Teresa E. Christy Award at the recent American Association for the History of Nursing meeting in Galveston, Texas. This award is given in recognition of historical scholarship conducted while in a student status.



Minneapolis, Minnesota. "The Heritage Room." Located in the School of Nursing, 5--150 Health Sciences, Unit F, 308 Harvard Street, Minneapolis, Mn 55427. Open during school office hours 8:00-4:30 weekdays and by appointment. Contact: Maryjane A. Telschow, RN, BSN, Chair, Heritage Room Committee, Board of Directors, Nursing Alumni Society, University of Minnesota.

The Perth Museum. Located in Perth, Ontario is the former home of Johanna Matheson, graduate nurse of St. Luke's Hospital in New York c1883. She was at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan during the Riel Rebellion. She later returned to Perth. Go see her silver medal inscribed North West 1885 Canada, her photographs and whatever else they may have about her. Maybe the museum will also have something about her niece, Flora Madeleine Shaw. Shaw was also from Perth. [Information courtesy of Margaret Allemang and Zona Chalifoux.]



Abel, Emily K., and Margaret K. Nelson. "Circles of Care: An Introductory Essay." Chap. in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women's Lives. New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Bale, Anthony. "`Hope in Another Direction': Compensation for Work-Related Illness among Women, 1900-1960--Part I." Women and Health 15 1 (1989): 81-102.

."`Hope in Another Direction': Compensation for Work-Related Illness among Women, 1900-1960--Part II." Women and Health 15 2 (1989): 99-115.

Benson, Evelyn R. "An Early 20th Century View of Nursing." Nursing Outlook 38 (November/December 1990): 275-277.

Brown, Janie M., and Patricia D'Antonio. "Nursing History and Scholarship --Critical Issues for the Discipline." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (November-December, 1990): 319.

Byrne, Mary Woods. "Imprint, The NSNA Journal, 1968-1973: A Profession's Messages to its Students in Turbulent Times." Imprint 37 (April/May 1990): 97-98, 101, 103-105.

Donahue, M. Patricia. "The Past is the Present." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (January-February, 1990): 9

. "Milestones in Nursing History." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (March-April, 1990): 72.

. "The Making of History." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (July-August, 1990): 191, 246.

. "Past Dialogues." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (September-October 1990): 251.

Fisher, Berenice. "Alice in the Human Services: A Feminist Analysis of Women in the Caring Professions." In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women's Lives, ed. Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson, 108-131. New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Fisher, Berenice, and Joan Tronto. "Towards a Feminist Theory of Caring." In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women's Lives, ed. Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson, 35-62. New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Glass, Laurie K. "AAHN --The Birth of An Organization." Journal of Professional Nursing 6 (May-June, 1990): 136, 185.

Larisey, Marian M. "Attic Treasures: A Look at Nursing History." Nursing Forum 25 (1, 1990): 20-24.

Marks, Lara. "`Dear Old Mother Levy's': The Jewish Maternity Home and Sick Room Helps Society 1895-1939." Social History of Medicine 3 (April 1990): 61-88.

Reilly, Dorothy E. "Research in Nursing Education." Nursing & Health Care 11 (March 1990): 139-143.

Samson, Julie. "A Nurse Who Gave Her Life So That Others Could Live: Clara Maass." Imprint 37 (April/May 1990): 81-82, 84, 87, 89.



Benkert, Marianne. Watchful Care: A History of America's Nurse Anesthetists. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.

Brim, Katherine. A History of Diploma Programs in Nursing and the National League for Nursing 1952-1987. Publ. No. 16-2284. New York: National League for Nursing, 1989.

Haase, Patricia T. The Origins and Rise of Associate Degree Nursing Education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

. Associated Degree Nursing Education: An Historical Annotated Bibliography. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1990.

McLaren, Angus. Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart Inc., 1990.

Norman, Elizabeth. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Potter, Ruby, Ruth Ann Kroth, and Phyllis Drennan. Portrait of Success: A History of Mizzou Nursing 1901-1989. [no publishing data. It is about the development of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Nursing--ed.].

Tschirch, Poldi. A Century of Excellence, A Vision for the Future. [no publishing data. It is about the University of Texas School of Nursing at Galveston 1890-1990--ed.].



1991, June 8-9. Canadian Association for the History of Nursing. To be held in Kingston, Ontario. See enclosed flyer.

1991, September 25-29. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) will hold its 55th annual meeting in Philadelphia. Contact: SAA, 600 S. Federal St., Suite 504, Chicago, Illinois 60605.

1991, September 28-30. Eighth Annual Fall Conference of the American Association for the History of Nursing with the University of California. To be held in San Francisco, California.

1992, May 19-22. "Voyage into the Future through Nursing Research." Sigma Theta Tau International with nine Sigma Theta Tau chapters in the USA will hold an International Nursing Research Conference in Columbus, Ohio. IF YOU WISH TO BE INVOLVED CONTACT: Joan Pryor McCann, RN, MN, Development Committee Chairperson, INRC, Franklin University, 201 S. Grant Ave., Columbus, Ohio 43209. 614/236-8689. OTHERWISE: see contact information in Newsletter, Fall 1990 (CAHN/ACHN).

1992, June. Canadian Association for the History of Nursing and the American Association for the History of Nursing Conjoint meeting in Saint John, New Brunswick.

1993, September. Tenth Annual AAHN Conference with the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Center for the Study of Nursing History.



Echoes in the Corridor. Interviews of a nurse historian and older nurses set against a back drop of rare photographs. Narrated by Jan Tennant. Contact either East in Motion Pictures Inc., Shediac, New Brunswick or New Brunswick Nurses Union, 750 Rue Brunswick Street, Fredericton, N.B. E3B 1H9. [From mimeographed flyer. Courtesy of Margaret Allemang and Arlee McGee.]

No More Silence. Charts the rise of nurses' unions and associations from the early 1970s. [Info as above.]



Fry, Sara T. "Ethical Issues in Research: Scientific Misconduct and Fraud." Nursing Outlook 38 (November/December 1990): 296.

Oral History: Guidelines available from the Oral History Association, 1093 Broxton Ave., #720, Los Angeles, CA 90024. 

Oral History: Booklets available from the Oral History Program, L-431, Division A, California State College, Fullerton, CA 92634.



Healy, Phyllis Foster. "Mary Eugenia Hibbard: Nurse, Gentlewoman and Patriot." diss. The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1990.

Willebrands, Elsa M. "Health Care Services In and Through the Technical System from 1910 to 1980." Ed.D diss., University of Toronto, Department of Education (OISE), 1988.

Zalumas, Jacqueline. "Critically Ill and Intensively Monitored: Patient, Nurse and Machine --The Evolution of Critical Nursing." diss. Emory University, Atlanta, 1989.


CLOSING QUOTATION In 1928 Julia Stewart (TGH 1893) cited the following words but couldn't recall the name of the author. Maybe you can.

`Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and of themselves will probably not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and in work, and remember that a noble, logical aim, once recorded, will never die, but long after we are dust, will be a living thing, repeating itself with ever-increasing insistency.'

(Julia Stewart, "The Inception and Development of the Graduate Nurses Association, Ontario, 1904-1926," Canadian Nurse 24 (February 1928): 71.)






© 2000, The Margaret M Allemang Centre for the History of Nursing