From the Archives: The lost history of Sewanee’s Training School for Nurses

Nurse Rosa May Oswell (row two, second from the left) and the class of nurses in 1928. Photos courtesy of the University Archives.

By Claire Crow
Executive Staff

If you ever decide to dive deeper into the history of the University, you are destined to stumble across pictures or articles on topics such as the old Emerald-Hodgson Hospital and the medical school that was attached to it. However, what most people do not realize is that another medical history on the Mountain ran parallel to this one at the turn of the 19th century: Emerald-Hodgson’s Training School for Nurses. As the 50 years of women at Sewanee celebration remains in full swing, it’s an appropriate time to spotlight this forgotten program for women that was up and running over 100 years ago. 

When I first came across this information on a class visit to the University Archives, I was shocked and disappointed that I was first hearing about Sewanee’s nursing school three years into my college career. Flash forward a few weeks, I and my fellow group members selected the nursing school to research for our final project; only then did I realize why no one talks about this history alongside the narrative of Emerald-Hodgson. Only one, half-filled file folder of information is held at the Archives, and even this file can easily become lost in a sea of the old medical school’s material.

Nurses working in Emerald-Hodgson Hospital’s operating room.

Before Sewanee’s medical school closed in 1909, the nursing school was conducted in connection with the medical and pharmacy departments. Even after the medical school’s closure, the Training School for Nurses remained open well into the 1930s. Within these 30 plus years, the program evolved into a three-year curriculum where nursing students received an apprentice education. Through this hands-on method of instruction, students assisted doctors and obtained a large portion of their learning through clinical experience at the hospital. As ideal as this style of program sounds, the apprentice education method was one of the key factors which led to the school’s closure.

No archival sources contain the exact year that the nursing school closed. However, a report written in 1931 by Emerald-Hodgson’s Superintendent and Chaplain, Reverend John Norton Atkins, alerted the hospital board of certain changes that were vital in keeping the nursing school alive. Atkins published this report around the same time that reformers were calling into question the overall education and practice of nursing in the United States. The need for quality American nurses was increasing rapidly which led to a nationwide attempt by reformers to either revise nursing curriculums or weed out the weaker programs. 

In Atkins’ report which included a national grading committee’s evaluation of Emerald-Hodgson Hospital, Sewanee’s training school started to lag behind the newer national standards for nursing curriculums. According to Atkins and the grading committee, many nursing schools were reprimanded for having student nurses for the sole purpose of saving the hospital money, which Emerald-Hodgson was entirely guilty of. 

Given the hospital’s remote location where only a handful of patients came in per week, the student nurses received hardly any valuable opportunity that would prepare them for trained nursing positions in their future careers. As of 1931, Emerald-Hodgson Hospital was also $14,000 in debt, which made it almost impossible for the hospital’s Board of Trustees to improve or alter the way the school operated. Hiring trained nurses, a far more expensive option compared to issuing their student nurses small monthly stipends, was the last thing the hospital wanted to do. 

Nurse uses a medical technology on an infant, undated.

Unless the training school established a board separate from the hospital’s management, received funds for their own separate budget, and improved the overall educational experience for the student nurses, there was no way Sewanee’s nursing school would be seen as legitimate in the face of new national standards for nursing. Given that no archival sources date after 1931, it is reasonable to assume that the school closed down shortly after Atkins formulated this Memorandum. 

The gradual, tragic downfall of Emerald-Hodgson’s Training School for Nurses should not undermine the multiple decades of educational opportunities it gave to women on the Mountain in the first half of the 20th century. While we are quick to think of women at Sewanee within the last 50 years, it is important to extend our thoughts to women like those enrolled in the training school over 100 years ago, who have been overlooked and literally covered up in an archival folder by the experiences of Sewanee’s medical school matriculants. 

Miss Sudeth, a nursing student, undated.

One comment

  1. Sewanee continued to train young women late teen to early twenties into the 1960. they worked as nurses aides but in reality did what Licensed Practical Nurses do. these “girls ” for poor economic situations for the local area , lived in Phillips Hall received room and Board, eating in the hospital dining room. had a Matron living in phillips who tried to keep tabs on them .had their white crisp uniforms laundered at the University Laundry and received a pittance in money. I worked/was trained to run the X-Ray machine when the regular attendant went home in the afternoon , at night and on weekends and when she was on vacation. Shirley Glasner then she married a Bill Moon. I was paid about 13 cents an hour . after graduating in 1966 from the University. I taught high school History and Spanish. I remember working with Dr Henry Tompkins Kirby-smith, His Sister Dr. Betty(Elizabeth Washington) Kirby-Smith Clough, Dr charles B. Keppler and the Head RN nurse Mrs. Zollie Thompson Sewell. thank you James E. Gipson Class of 1966. Sewanee/The University had a way of winging it and did what they had to do to Survive.

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