We were honored today by a visit from Dr. Eric Widmer, one of founding dean Carolyn Ladd Widmer’s two sons, who came to view the new 75th anniversary exhibit honoring his mother in the Storrs Hall Widmer Wing atrium.
Like his mother, Dr. Widmer is both an educator and an internationalist. Educated at Deerfield Academy, Williams College, and Harvard University, Dr. Widmer has been a scholar in Chinese history, teaching at Brown University, where he also served as a dean. Later his career returned him to his alma mater Deerfield as headmaster. Eventually, he was invited by King Abdullah II of Jordan to found the King’s Academy (celebrating its tenth year) on the model of Deerfield.
Dr. Widmer is following in the footsteps of his mother, who founded not only the UConn School of Nursing but also the collegiate nursing program at the American University of Beirut, and of his maternal grandfather, Cyrus Hamlin, who founded Robert College in Istanbul in the mid-nineteenth century.
He is currently working on a memoir of his mother, derived from his and his brother Michal’s recollections and archival sources.
The UConn School of Nursing’s Dolan Collection was visited recently by the Weinhold family, long-time friends of a 1955 alumna, Barbara Ann Contessa Madgwick, who has donated a handmade crib from her days in Frontier Nursing. The crib was made by a local craftsman, Alonzo Sizemore (Hydon, Essex County, KY) of hickory saplings with woven hickory bark for the bed.
This beautiful and unusual item has been added to the permanent sickroom exhibit in the Widmer Wing atrium.
Madwick and the Weinholds have done the curator’s job for him by providing the following explanation:
Barbara Ann Contessa Madgwick earned her baccalaureate from UConn’s School of Nursing in 1955. Immediately after graduating she joined the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Hydon, Kentucky, as a staff nurse. Her duties were primarily home visits by horseback or by Jeep to families scattered throughout the hills of southern Appalachia, one of the poorest and most inaccessible areas in the United States. She assisted at the FNS hospital in her off times or when she was on call. A clinic was located on the first floor of the old stone hospital. Maternity services were on the 2nd floor. The School of Midwifery was down the path from the hospital. (In the 50’s nurse-midwifery was not yet legal in most states so most of the midwifery students were training for overseas missionary work.) Staff nurses such as Barbara assisted the teachers with deliveries, post-natal care and home visits. The staff nursing team consisted of 4 to 6 young women supervised by a senior British nurse-midwife.
Poverty in that area of Kentucky was endemic. Many homes visited by Barbara and her colleagues were little more than shacks, lacking running water, electricity and indoor plumbing. The largest medical challenges were chronic respiratory problems among the miners, a huge issue, and general malnutrition.
Toddlers and young children with disabilities were kept in cribs such as this one in order to protect them and keep them safely away them from the “far” (fire), either the open hearth or a potbellied stove. Barbara remembers being sent into the hills to check on Jeannie, about 8 months old, for “failure to survive.” Jeannie was kept in a crib like this one. Her family gave her Coke when she was thirsty. Children who were particularly vulnerable or fragile would be kept in the FNS hospital through the winter. Such was the case with Jeannie. Parents were comfortable with letting the nursing staff care for the children in this manner. Jeannie slept in a cardboard box while in the hospital and was carried around by the nurses who watched over her. Barbara recalls accompanying Jeannie by ambulance to a hospital in Cincinnati for evaluation and perhaps treatment.
Barbara commissioned this crib from a local craftsman, Alonzo Sizemore. Sizemore was the middle-aged maintenance man/ driver/jack-of-all-trades for the FNS and he made cribs as a side business. The crib is made of hickory saplings and the bottom is lined with hickory bark. This was important because hickory bark is impervious to moisture and thus resistant to decay caused by urine. Sometimes a crib would be cushioned with a blanket.
The people of the area were very appreciative of the FNS—even if/when they frequently failed to follow medical advice. In a region known for violent solutions to problems, and the sound of gunfire not unheard, the nurses were never in danger because their service and dedication were highly valued.
The FNS nurses wore uniforms, one for summer, another for winter. At that time the nurses were not encouraged to socialize or participate in local culture but they were always made welcome. They spent their free time cooking and singing hill country songs together.
Following her time with the FNS Barbara went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaya (1961-1964), where she served on a yaws control team in rural and jungle areas. Here is where the young Weinholds met her (and each other). The latter part of her career was spent working in an early intervention program for infants in Loudoun Country in Virginia.
Mary Breckinridge established the Frontier Nursing Service in 1926. Over the years the FSN lowered the maternal and infant mortality rate in southern Appalachia from one of the highest in the country to well below the national average. Today the FNS still serves southeastern Kentucky, with a new hospital in Hyden, four rural health clinics, a home health agency and the FNS School of Midwifery and Family Nursing. People have come from around the world to study this model of rural health and social service delivery.
The UConn School of Nursing’s permanent exhibit case honoring founding dean Carolyn Ladd Widmer has been renovated for the 75th anniversary.
It features text from Widmer, her sons, and her grandson —
“But over the years, earlier in particular, what would amaze me, and this was unexpected but then it became commonplace for me, those women from the early years would come up to me and they’d each have different stories. But almost to a person, they’d say, ‘Mike, your mother changed my life. Your mother changed my life.’ And then they’d tell me their story. Dozens. And if dozens have told me, there are hundreds if not thousands of women out there (because it was mostly women in those days) whose lives were changed because of her. And I think that’s one of her great legacies, which can get lost around the institution and the academics, and that I think was a huge motivation for her.” Michael Widmer, 2015.
“It wasn’t the easiest job in the world for a single mother. On the one hand, someone who insisted on putting hot meals three times a day in front of my brother and me and attending to her motherly duties, which I think she found very satisfying, fulfilling to herself. On the other hand, trying to establish a school of nursing that would do all of those things in the way that the profession of nursing was developing in those years, which of course for many professional nurses meant that you had to itemize all of those skills. And the things a nurse would need to know how to do but might neglect or at least not put in first place, the humanistic ones.” Eric Widmer, 2015.
“My late grandmother Carolyn Ladd Widmer was a lifelong traveler, and spent long stretches of her life in South America and Lebanon, working in public health and education. She seemed to never stop learning, and her overflowing rooms were another early source of inspiration. At some point in adolescence, I discovered that her grandfather Cyrus Hamlin was the founder of Robert College in Istanbul, a factoid that escaped much notice from me until I turned to the writing of this book. . . . I have benefited greatly from this strangely insistent web of international influences.” Historian Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, 2008.
“When Grandfather asked the chief physician [at the hospital in Scutari where Florence Nightingale worked] why the patients could not have clean clothing, he was told that no satisfactory laundry facilities had been found, that the clothing was too filthy to be cleaned anyway, and that ‘every man had better mind his own business.’ ‘I thought,’ says the missionary, ‘that in such a scene of suffering . . . it was my “own business” to mitigate it.’” Carolyn Ladd Widmer, “Grandfather and Florence Nightingale,” American Journal of Nursing, 1955.
“Such is the spirit and such are the problems of the housewife nurses who are again taking up active duty. It is an unquenchable spirit, but alone it cannot solve all of the problems which these nurses are facing. Inasmuch as last year it was my pleasure and privilege to teach refresher courses to inactive graduate nurses and since I am myself the mother of two small children, I have had some contact with these difficulties. When at the beginning of one class hour I started to take my lesson plan from its folder (which I had had at home the night before) and drew forth instead The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the class realized that they were not alone in finding it difficult always to keep home and hospital from encroaching on each other.” Carolyn Ladd Widmer, “The Housewife Re-enters Nursing,” American Journal of Nursing, 1943.
In honor of the UConn School of Nursing’s 75th anniversary year, new exhibits from the Dolan Collection have been installed in the Storrs Hall Widmer Wing atrium. These include the School’s student nurse uniforms from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s in a built-in display case:
One free standing vitrine that remembers some of the people of the school (students, faculty and staff):
And another free-standing vitrine that documents the school’s homes:
As the UConn School of Nursing celebrates its 75th anniversary and prepares for its gala celebration later this month, we take a moment to listen to the School’s first full-time nurse faculty member, Josephine A. Dolan (1913-2004), interviewed here in April 1995 by another professor emerita and nurse historian, Eleanor Krohn Herrmann (1935-2012).
ELEANOR KROHN HERRMANN: I am in Holliston, Massachusetts, meeting with Dr. Josephine Dolan in her home.
JOSEPHINE A. DOLAN: You know, Eleanor, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what was my goal. What really was I chasing after all my professional years? And I think it started in the forties, when I was studying at B.U. [Boston University] and being turned on by the faculty who saw a tremendous need for changing the image of nursing because it was a servant image, and also for changing the delivery of nursing care which was just carrying out the doctors’ orders. Health was – forget it. It was just a sickness-oriented image and function. So that when I came to UConn in 1944, I was suddenly shocked by and aware of the lack of acceptance by faculty in every college or school on campus –every one of the schools and colleges in our university academic family. And many of them said openly, “You people must realize that we never expected to welcome a technical school on campus.” We got this all the time. Our students were told, by mainly the science faculty, that with their brains, they certainly shouldn’t continue in the School of Nursing, to be prepared to carry out a servant function. And if that wasn’t a hard enough challenge, when I got to the clinical area, I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t accepted as a person, nor were the students by clinical staff. And the Director of Nursing – I was absolutely an anathema to her —Miss Elsa Storm – and it’s funny that I remembered her name yesterday as I was thinking about this. She called Laddie [Carolyn Ladd] Widmer, our Dean, every single day to report me.
EKH: That is while you were at Backus Hospital?
JAD: At Backus Hospital, in Norwich, in the clinical area. And I told the students that they were not to stand aside and wait until everyone got on the elevators, or they’d never get to the dining room to eat. So we went ahead and barged in. I had them go first and then I followed them in which, of course, from a social point of view, was wrong. Physicians were horrified, and so were all the staff nurses who expected to go first. Good luck to them –they went, as far as I was concerned, first come, first served. [laughs] In the clinical area, when a doctor expected everyone to jump to attention, I told these students to sit down and do what they were doing. If they were spoken to, to remember they were ladies. But the doctors did not have arms amputated –they could get their own charts. So after a while of knowing that Miss Storm was calling Laddie every single day, I went up to tender my resignation, and she said, “Are you unhappy in the clinical area?” I said, “Well I realize that I’m not in agreement with their ideas, and I’m making you unhappy.” And she said, “My unhappiness has nothing to do with it. I hired you to be a change agent.”
So keeping that in mind, then there was much that needed to be done. We decided –the Dean and I – that we better endeavor to recruit very bright students, so to change the milieu on campus. But it was not only recruiting them. We had to retain them which meant fighting with faculty and other schools who were trying to wean them away from us. Gradually – and I came in 1944 – by 1948 we recognized the need for an Honor Society, and brought it into being.
Now, in talking with Laddie, I said, “I don’t think we should just grab some Greek letters like Alpha, Beta, Delta or something – it should have meaning. It should represent our philosophy of what we want the Honor Society to do.” So I conferred with a professor who taught classical languages – notably Greek at Harvard – and sat down with him and shared with him the need for Greek letters which symbolized our philosophy of nursing. He came up with the idea of Tau Pi Epsilon, which, strangely enough, represented healers and builders of health. Now, this was an entirely different connotation from the function of nurses. In the first place, they were not considered by anyone, including themselves, as healers. And, God forbid that they’d be builders of health. So, you see, what we were proposing in our symbolism was a much broader connotation than the current role. Now, this again showed – and I guess with a lack of humility – my desire to have a background for what we were doing. I guess my historical research was beginning to emerge. The faculty colleagues in other schools on campus were impressed by our scholarly approach, and our breadth of the professional role. Now, that’s our introduction to the Honor Society set-up.
I went to B.U. and received my master’s degree in 1950. I carried a full teaching load on campus, then went down to Willimantic, took the train to Boston and took night classes at B.U., and came back, was picked up by faculty on campus who felt bad for the load I was carrying. Now, it’s interesting that I attended [the] Association of Collegiate Schools of Nursing meeting in May of 1951. It was at Saybrook. I heard some fantastic speakers talk about how poorly prepared and what an inadequate function nurses were carrying. And one in particular, the lady who was in charge of the Veterans Administration Nursing Service, said that she visited the nursing care that was given, and she was appalled at the fact that the role that was seen by nurses was that they carry out doctors’ orders. It was as simple as that. This is in 1951. It was at that particular conference that Annie Goodrich encouraged deans and faculty to hold their schools together – that baccalaureate schools were in a very untenable spot. And that it was important that even though they felt they needed a doctorate, they needed, most especially, to put their finger in the dike and hold it together while supporting young faculty getting an enriched education. My master’s thesis at B.U. was planning for an honors program in nursing. I was still trying to change the image, and to recruit and retain bright, scholarly nurses. It was interesting that almost immediately UConn Honors Program developed.
EKH: Do you mean the university?
JAD: UConn’s Honors Program developed right after I did my master’s thesis. [laughs] My master’s thesis had nothing to do with their plan, it just happened to be concurrent. It’s interesting when the UConn Honors Program developed, our School of Nursing had more students eligible per school size than any other school on campus.
EKH: Isn’t that interesting!
JAD: This came as an absolute shock to other schools on the campus – and faculty. Now then, meanwhile, I became an author because I was invited by Saunders to take over Minnie Goodnow’s History of Nursing textbook in 1953. I saw this was a terrific chance to show a stronger image through an historical image, to reclaim what was in print, and this role could at least be in print for people to read. The chapter images were my way of showing historical evidence to strengthen our perspective, and that’s why I did it. I had a lot of response. It’s amazing how many people wrote and said, “I had no idea.” It’s interesting how many people on campus would tell me of things about nursing that they found in pursuing and perusing historical documents. So that I got terrific help, and all of a sudden, I realized that the faculty had somehow or another done an about-face, and we were really not the illegitimate people that we started out to be.
I became a member of Sigma Theta Tau, Theta chapter, in 1954, and founded a chapter at UConn, which was Mu chapter. It’s interesting that when I accepted an invitation to wherever, whatever school, I always said whatever I felt was significant to say about the image of nursing, supporting it with historical data. And when I went to Indiana State, they had an historical series for faculty and for students of medicine and nursing. I was the first speaker, and I floored the assembly when I said, “Physicians were the first nurse extenders.” I thought there would be some CVAs [cerebrovascular accidents, i.e., strokes] in the audience. Many of the medical faculty totally ignored me afterwards, but many of them came up to me and said, “You’re absolutely right. Unless somebody recognized there was a need, we never would have been called in.” Which is true, but certainly hadn’t been recognized by nurses. It was interesting to me to realize that faculty on our own campus were changing their attitude toward us.
When Sister Charles Marie Frank decided that she was no longer going to continue the revisions of her book because, she said, “I think your book is much better. I agree with the philosophy and I’m not going to continue mine.” The next was Dr. Shryock, who told me, “No way. I’m not going to continue my revisions because I like yours better, and it’s historically sound.” When the history faculty members on our campus, many of whom had studied for their doctorates under Dr. Shryock, — when they invited him to come for a big event to thank him for all he’d done in helping them to get doctorates, he said he would come if the nurse historian on campus was invited, which floored that august group of PhDs in history. But I was invited, and he spent his time talking to me, which bothered them a bit. When the Art Department was asked by Smith College to identify the artist of a painting that had been given to them, they turned over the data about the painting to me to help them identify it. They said, “Our nurse historian could identify it better than we could.” This, to me, was just a real thrill. [laughs]
EKH: And recognition!
JAD: And recognized that we had achieved a different image, as far as nursing, as far as our school was concerned. I have so many things that help me to realize that bit by bit, we did change the image.
EKH: A question, Jo: Was your agenda, which is really from start to finish, a very progressive one and one that progressed in sequence- did you see it as clearly in the beginning, or was it an evolving thing where you recognized that there was indeed a broader scope? I think sometimes the differentiation we don’t always see in the very beginning.
JAD: I don’t think I could see the forest for the trees. I was living from day-to-day, having a terribly heavy teaching load, but somehow it was intuitively that I tried to change what I saw as being wrong. I’m doing it today working with seniors [senior citizens]. They’re very concerned here in Massachusetts that the catastrophic things that are going on – like at Dana Farber and several outstanding Massachusetts hospitals. It indicates that there’s somebody who is not a patient advocate. I know that we know that well-prepared nurses are being relieved of their duties and supplanted by poorly prepared people. Actually the wheel – the pendulum is coming back. And what we’re going to have to do is begin to emphasize [that] we have a different role. We are needed. The patient and the physicians have to realize that it’s the doctor who saves the patient’s life; it’s the nurse who helps the patient to live. But it can’t be a trained attendant or somebody that’s just making a bed. The role of a well-qualified scholarly nurse – compassionate nurse – is still needed.
EKH: I think that’s a really fine point. And I think we most recently have seen that in the Oklahoma City disaster, just this past Wednesday, when the firefighters and policemen and all the people who were in the rescue operation were greatly recognized, and duly recognized. And at the same time the nurses were recognized because they are the ones who are going to be giving the on-going care, either to the survivors or to the families of the survivors.
JAD: Actually, Eleanor, I think you’re right, and I’m glad you brought that up. Because I truly think that now that we know that many states have these hate groups that are evolving, I think we have to go back to the preparation that we’ve given to nurses for a long time, and, that is an emphasis on the Judeo-Christian background of caring for others and loving, as He has loved. And this love used to be very over-powering. It’s tremendously significant, and we’re going to need it again.
EKH: Very definitely.
JAD: Eleanor, recently I went to a memorial service at UConn. When I say UConn, it’s University of Connecticut. And afterwards some people came up who knew me. I didn’t think I’d know a soul. But one Associate Dean of the School of Education came up and she said, “So good to see you. We think of you often whenever we have a Pi Lambda Theta meeting because you helped us. You pushed us to have a chapter, and you’re one of our charter members.” And I thought, “Well, thank God I wasn’t just selfish. I’m glad I helped somebody else.”
But there’s another thing. Long after we had a chapter of Sigma Theta Tau, the august faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences decided that they needed a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. And when they polled the faculty on campus to see if they could find anybody who had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, they were astounded to find that the Dean of the School of Nursing was a member. And not only did they have a female, but the Dean of that technical school called the School of Nursing. Now, when she went to the meeting, she of course, had her father’s key because her father was Phi Beta Kappa from Williams, as was her sister from Radcliffe. So she was from a family very much aware of Phi Beta Kappa. They were so impressed with her, she was elected archivist for the historical files. And, again, it was a chance to show nurses do achieve.