Dr. Ralph Gilman, MD, served as the University of Connecticut’s first student health service physician and local family doctor. In addition, he served on the committee that guided the university in the establishment of the School of Nursing.
Here are excerpts of remarks about their father and mother (a nurse) prepared by his children.
Dr. Ralph Gilman was hired in December of 1930 as the first physician at the University of Connecticut (known then as the Connecticut Agricultural College), setting up practice at the beginning of 1931 in a dual role of school physician at the University and town doctor after hours. He served as the Director of the Division of Health Services from 1931-1949. He was the physician to the people of Storrs and many neighboring communities for 51 years.
In preparing for medical training, Dr. Gilman studied organic chemistry at Harvard and graduated to Harvard Medical School in 1925. Completing medical school in 1929, he entered internship at Hartford Hospital and before finishing, met his soon-to-be wife Ruby Weaver of Torrington and head nurse at the hospital. Upon being offered the position at the University, he was told by University President Charles McCracken that because he would be examining co-eds, he had to be married when he arrived. So in ten days, he and Ruby were married. At that time, having a full-time job was important and getting married was not going to stand in the way. They spent the next 56 years together.
As school physician, Dr. Gilman took special delight in watching over the varsity teams. Many of the football fans who cheered his quick sprints onto Dow Field (with son James sometimes carrying his bag) to attend to an injury saying, “Give him a pill, Doc,” were unaware that he himself had been a quarterback, centerfielder, and runner at Boston’s Roxbury Latin School. As both the school and the town physician, Dr. Gilman was allowed to have private patients and his office was located in what used to be the infirmary on campus – a small, long brick building on the west side of the pond across from Church row. The Gilman children distinctly remember going there for their shots. When the university grew and needed a bigger infirmary and medical staff, he was instrumental in designing the new student health building that was built in 1948.
Shortly thereafter, in 1949, Dr. Gilman stepped out of his dual role after having been told by then University President Jorgenson that he would have to choose between the two. With the oldest son Donald about to start college, he felt that he would have no choice but to leave UConn and have a full time private practice at the age of 48. Unfortunately, he was too young to take a pension and he was only able to take out as much as he put in. He used this money to build his office on Dog Lane, behind a small shopping center that was there at the time.
Almost immediately after settling in to his full-time practice, Dr. Gilman was asked to become Mansfield’s medical examiner, taking on 20 years of sudden night-time summons by his friends in the state and local police. House calls to bedridden patients, day and night, remained Dr. Gilman’s repertoire through all the years he worked. There were daily rounds at the Windham Community Memorial Hospital in Willimantic where he had joined the staff at its founding in 1933 and later served as chief of medical services. During his career Dr. Gilman also worked with many colleagues around the state in the governing affairs of his profession. He was a founding member of the Windham County Medical Society and the Connecticut State Medical Society, was elected to the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association, and later to a term as president of the State Medical Society. He was also a life member of the American College of Physicians.
Dr. and Mrs. Gilman ran their medical office together during World War II and the first postwar years, and raised four children – Donald, James, Peter, and Priscilla in the family home that they built in 1937 on Willowbrook Road, across from the UConn campus. They knew the Dean of the Nursing School, Laddie Widmer, quite well and she was, for many years, one of Dr. Gilman’s patients. Mrs. Gilman was very active in health affairs in Mansfield, founding the visiting nurse service, and running many blood drives in the old armory building on campus. Son Peter remembers one of them being a ‘triple’ drive, during which 525 pints were collected in one day. Mrs. Gilman eventually gave up working in the office to attend to their growing family and in addition to nursing, was a well-known local artist.
Following the death of their father, the children of Ralph and Ruby Gilman started a scholarship fund at the School of Nursing in honor of the Gilman’s’ 51 years of dedication and service to the Mansfield, Storrs and University communities. The Ralph and Ruby Gilman Scholarship is awarded to a student of the School of Nursing to be applied toward tuition and fees.
The School of Nursing honors Dr. Gilman as one of its godparents who served on the original committee advising the university in the founding of the school.
Seniors in the School of Nursing in their final semester take a history survey of American nursing, encountering objects and documents from the Dolan Collection, including these (in a blog post prepared by one of the students).
Last-semester seniors enrolled in Nursing’s Past as Prologue encounter artifacts and archival documents from the Dolan Collection, preparing a blog post on their findings. Here is one student’s study of an early 1950s humor book, published a decade after the UConn School of Nursing’s opening.
The UConn School of Nursing was barely a decade old when the popular Cherry Ames young adult fiction series was published. This report on an object in the Dolan Collection was prepared by a student in Nursing’s Past as Prologue, a course required in the senior year.
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 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.
Recently a UConn doctoral student in history, Mike Limberg, reached out to the Dolan Collection for archival materials related to his dissertation. He is working on a section of his dissertation that focuses on the evolution of American medical education at the American University of Beirut during the 1920s and 1930s. His major advisor is Frank Costigliola, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, whose expertise is in twentieth-century U.S. foreign relations.
Limberg’s dissertation focuses on the efforts of a network of U.S. missionaries, philanthropists, and diplomats to encourage economic and social development in Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s. Americans working on these projects both cooperated and fought with nationalist politicians, religious reformers, and colonial officials, and these interactions reshaped their ideas of what modernity or progress could be.
In the course of his archival research Limberg stumbled across the connection between Carolyn Ladd Widmer and the American University of Beirut, which prompted him to seek out the Dolan Collection. Prior to inaugurating the UConn School of Nursing, Widmer had directed the School of Nursing at the American University of Beirut, introducing a five-year baccalaureate program there in 1936.
Limberg has found references to Widmer in materials from the Rockefeller Foundation. Some of those references came from Mary Beard’s diaries when she was an officer in the International Health Division and connected to many public health nursing programs in the United States.
Others were in the Rockefeller Foundation’s general records in its country files for Lebanon, RG 1.1, Series 833.
Mike Limberg has consulted with Dolan Collection Curator Dr. Thomas Lawrence Long, who has also sought out Dean Widmer’s two sons, Mike and Eric, for background information. Although UConn’s Archives and Special Collections have little documentary material from Dean Widmer’s career prior to arriving in Connecticut, Dr. Long hopes to identify some sources in the Josephine Dolan papers.