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121 Once a nurse, always a nurse. St. Luke’s nurse, 19891 really wanted to be a detective,”Helen Bertsche remarked in 1989, when asked about her decision to become a nurse.2 Although she “Iwas now well into her eighties, the discussion of her old passion for sleuthing made her eyes brighten and her voice rise with an excitement similar to what she must have felt as a young woman. It was the late 1920s again and she was living in her home on the bluffs of St. Paul’s West Side, just above the “flats,” a rowdy neighborhood that filled a wide expanse of land that stretched along the Mississippi. “I always knew when a house in the flats was going up,” Miss Bertsche commented in regard to the increasingly common practice of the late 1920s and 1930s of torching homes and businesses to collect insurance money.3 Piecing together various clues, she was able to figure out exactly where an arsonist would strike “a day or two before the fire.” Reflecting on this time, she said she now realizes how hard-pressed many people were financially, as the nation’s slide into the Great Depression was reflected by a boom in illegal activity in St. Paul. She also recalled one of the most notorious gangsters of this era, Alvin Karpis, who wrote,“Every criminal of any importance . . . made his home at one time or another in St. Paul. If you were looking for a guy you hadn’t seen in a few months, you usually thought of two places—prison or St. Paul. If he wasn’t locked up in one, he was probably hanging out in the other.”4 Somewhat wistfully, however, Miss Bertsche pointed out that being a detective was not a realistic ambition for a woman in the late 1920s. With that option closed, she set her sights on nursing, where she relished a different type of challenge. Once she began her work and training at St. Luke’s, she never considered turning 7 Lasting Impressions Olson_CH7_2nd.qxd 1/13/2004 2:24 PM Page 121 back. “I wouldn’t have left,” she insisted, “even to be a detective.” As if no other explanation was necessary, Miss Bertsche observed firmly, ”Once a nurse always a nurse.”5 During talks with other St. Luke’s nurses, a similar devotion to nursing was repeatedly expressed, although most interrupted their gainful employment for marriage and child rearing. The women of St. Luke’s seemed to demonstrate the same degree of zeal and commitment to their work as is often seen among professionals such as physicians, lawyers, and members of the clergy. To explore this finding, and thus to add a final piece to the puzzle of early nursing, this chapter looks closely at the impressions of nursing that the women took with them once their apprenticeship was complete.6 What did nursing mean to them? A Congregation of Women On June 12, 1895, eight young women, all of whom were recent graduates of the St. Luke’s Hospital Training School for Nurses,“met for the purpose of organizing an alumani [sic] association.”7 Across the continent, alumnae of other training schools were also organizing, prompted by the general uncertainties of work outside the home and the specific demands of private -duty nursing. By 1896, these groups were unified into a single North American association, which became the leading voice for rank-and-file nurses in the United States and Canada: the Nurses’ Associated Alumnae.8 When members of this major body met at their sixth annual convention , in 1903, one of the last of the famous untrained nurses of the Civil War, Mary A. Livermore, proclaimed with great emotion, “I find all that is within me rising up in this presence . . . a congregation of trained women nurses. Something that in my earlier days I never expected to see.”9 Nursing had come so far in this one woman’s lifetime that there was much reason for nurses to feel pride in their chosen occupation. Emotion aside, though, what bound the women together was a pragmatic desire to take hold of their futures. St. Luke’s alumnae members had reason to think they were riding the wave of the future when they declared in 1895 that their aim was“to advance in all ways the interests of trained nurses, by meetings, exercises and such corporate action as may tend to that result.”10 The use of the word...


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