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143 Today we are living at the close of one era and at the beginning of another. . . . The inexorable drive of progress brings us face to face with needed adjustments, newer methods, newer visions, and wider hopes. The best of the old era must be retained, the best of the new adopted. —Janet Geister, 1931, The Minnesota Registered Nurse1 fter the last woman who had been admitted to the St. Luke’s program finished her training on June 20, 1937, the school closed. No formal observances or fanfare marked the event. After all, the school was respected, but not great. Even in closing, St. Luke’s was just part of local and national trends. Between 1930 and 1935, the number of hospital schools of nursing in Minnesota plummeted from fifty-one to thirtysix , likely prompting more than one nurse who read Geister’s statement above to wonder if this was really progress.2 Outside the state, the situation was the same, with the number of accredited schools declining nationally from 2,286 in 1929 to 1,472 in 1936.3 No doubt many women were rueful over these changes, since access to training was becoming increasingly limited. Nursing leaders, however, regarded the closings as a much-needed step in making way for collegiate education in nursing. Yet to their disappointment, the number of programs associated with colleges increased to only seventy in the mid-1930s, nearly all of which represented two years of general education either before or after a conventional three-year hospital training program.4 “With regard to discontinuing our training school at St. Luke’s Hospital ,”the nursing superintendent wrote to the parent of an applicant,“it was done primarily because we felt that greater opportunities awaited our 8 Reclaiming the Past, Remaking the Future A Olson_CH8_2nd.qxd 1/13/2004 2:25 PM Page 143 entering group at the University Hospitals.”5 This was, however, merely an attempt to put a more positive face on the school’s dissolution. As the superintendent later explained in a letter to the New York Board of Nurse Examiners, “We have found it unadvisable to enter a class . . . the oversupply of nurses in this locality was becoming a grave problem for a while and we decided to staff with graduates for the time being.”6 “For the time being”became permanent,as the national economic depression of the 1930s deepened and fewer patients were able to afford private duty. Hospitals responded by permitting more graduates to remain at work, often providing only a small increase in wages over what they had received as students . With the turn away from a staff of apprentice nurses, the number of fully trained nurses in hospitals across the country rose an astounding 700 percent in less than ten years, from four thousand in 1929 to twenty-eight thousand in 1937 (the last year of the St. Luke’s school).7 Obviously, many other hospitals besides St. Luke’s rethought the need for a nursing school in this period. The Great Depression alone was not enough to account for so many program closings, however, some of which were in hospitals that were highly solvent and boasted a long and satisfying tradition of nurses’ training. “Tradition ...(was) the major reason why some of those hospitals that had schools . . . were so reluctant to either improve it or decided to discontinue it,” offered a prominent member of the Minnesota Board of Nurse Examiners and a former president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.8 This individual was speaking in regard to the increased attention that the board was giving to enhancing academics in nursing schools during the early 1930s,and her comment could not have rung more true for St. Luke’s. Similar to hospital and school officials across the country, those at St. Luke’s diligently complied with board suggestions regarding practical training, while altogether ignoring recommendations for improvements in classroom education.9 Every action that they took in guiding training at the hospital articulated Nightingale’s contention that nursing was “impossible to learn from any book.”10 After more than forty years of this singular vision of nursing, they were not about to abandon it and retool themselves and their program for an academic ideal touted by a relatively small but increasingly influential nursing elite. Nor could they continue indefinitely to subvert the new agenda while purporting to accommodate it. Thus, closing was the most reasonable alternative.  For the women of St. Luke’s, widespread economic despair...


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