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39 There is no question . . . about my wanting to take up the work. I have done almost all ordinary kinds of work and a great deal of it—it is no trouble for me to work hard, and I expect it. —St. Luke’s Trainee, 19121 fter her interview with the superintendent of nursing at St. Luke’s, in May 1929, Lydia Sommerfeld was definite about wanting to be a nurse. In the hope that a follow-up letter would improve her chances of acceptance, she wrote,“I am glad I was at your hospital last week and hope I will be accepted for I was very much pleased with the place. I now have made up my mind to go to your hospital if I am accepted and continue until I am through. I have set down my foot and said, I will go through the 3 years regardless of what I meet and have to go through. . . . If I cannot go to this hospital I will have to try at some other one, so I wished you would answer right away for I am waiting patiently.”2 St. Luke’s had made a favorable impression on Miss Sommerfeld and, although she wasn’t aware at the time, she had made a favorable impression on the superintendent. She was admitted the following September. Of course, Miss Sommerfeld’s resolve may have been spurred by the looming economic depression, her application coming only months before a second major stock market crash abruptly halted “the wild orgy of speculation . . . which has taken place in the last five years.”3 However, even after the second crash, confidence remained high in Minnesota. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported at the end of October 1929 that“business conditions in St. Paul and Minneapolis are good and in the country districts they are far from bad.”4 Moreover, Miss Sommerfeld’s letter, like that of the stenographer cited in the previous chapter, typifies the determination shown by the women of St. Luke’s. 3 Ready for Work A Olson_CH3_2nd.qxd 1/13/2004 2:21 PM Page 39 Yet the question remains, what exactly motivated Miss Sommerfeld and the other women to become St. Luke’s nurses? Conversely, what additional qualities, if any, were hospital and training school officials looking for in determining who was right for nursing? After all, it was far from certain that an applicant would be admitted. As previously noted, for example, during a typical year 125 women applied, fifty were given consideration, and just twenty-five were accepted.5 Saintly Nursing A common interpretation is that women often sought out nursing as a religious calling (see figure 4). In the early twentieth century, explains nursing historian Boutilier, a woman’s“willingness to give physical care to strangers was widely interpreted as a concrete expression of spiritual grace . . . (involving) an ideal of ‘feminine’ self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness.”6 Nurses became “ministering angels” and “ladies of the lamp,” strengthening the construction of nursing as a female pursuit.7 According to the Kalisches , nurses’ training set the religious tone through “a very peculiar,” almost monastic system of instruction in the “mysteries of ministering to the sick,” in which nurses’ “actions (were) governed by the dedication to duty derived from religious devotion.”8 Yet beneath the veneer of religion, these and other historians argue, the ultimate goal of this system was less than charitable for nurses and nursing . Instead, it was simply intended to provide“a plentiful supply of female nurses . . . submissive, hard-working, loyal, pacific, and religious . . . not to educate [them] for a profession.”9 The tacit relationship between a religiously inspired nursing and problems in achieving professional status comprises a frequent theme in discussions of nursing history. As described in another account, “an unscientific and saintly nursing” prevented nurses from “understanding (the) structural characteristics of a profession.”10 “Saintly nursing,” as an allegory for nursing’s slow progress in becoming a full-fledged profession, rests on two important assumptions. The first is that women tended to enter training to fulfill religious yearnings, and the second that self-sacrificing women were actively recruited by hospitals. If these assumptions are accurate, the St. Luke’s training program would be expected to exemplify religious portrayals of hospital service. To be sure, the effort to build St. Luke’s Hospital was sparked by a religious leader, the Reverend John V. Van Ingen. Moved by the death of his young daughter in 1855, the “tall, venerable...


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