Eleanor Krohn Herrmann

Interview with Josephine A. Dolan (1995)

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).

Dr. Eleanor Krohn Herrmann, professor emerita and late curator of the Josephine A. Dolan Collection.
Josephine A. Dolan, first full-time nurse faculty member, UConn School of Nursing, nurse historian, and late curator of the Dolan Collection

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.

End of Interview