Long a source of some contention among nursing students at the University of Kansas, the requirement of single marital status at the time of entry to nursing education as well as having to remain unmarried through completion of the program ended on the eve of World War II.
Approved by the Nursing School Committee of the KU School of Medicine Administrative Council on April 18, 1941, the actual motion by Dean Harry Wahl of the Medical School read in part: “hereafter the marital status of an applicant to the school of nursing is not to play any part in the future admission or continuance in school.” While many students welcomed the change, at least one unidentified male member of the Medical School faculty expressed the concern that it might “take something away from nursing to allow students to marry.”
The prerequisite of single status for student nurses, and the expectation that nurse faculty and administrators would remain unmarried, was deeply imbedded in the Florence Nightingale concept of nursing and the training of nurses, and dated back to the mid-nineteenth century. In part, this requirement sprung from the religious impulse that underpinned all of Nightingale’s ideas about nurse training. “Life is a shallow thing,” she once stated, “and more especially Hospital life, without any depth of religion.”
To achieve the proper setting for training young women to be nurses, Nightingale advocated that “…nurses should be technically trained in hospitals prepared for the purpose; and that they should…live in a home attached to the hospital where a sister was to be responsible for their moral and spiritual character training” according to author Ann Bradshaw in her 2001 work, The Nurse Apprentice.
While there were no religious observances at the various KU hospitals where nursing students received their training during the first few decades of the twentieth century, applicants to the program initially had to provide a testimonial letter from their clergyman to gain admission. Even as late as 1948 when KU Med School dean Franklin Murphy explored the possibility of hiring E. Jean Hill to direct the University’s nursing program, her religious affiliation was one criteria explored by correspondence.
While applicants and student nurses were expected to be religiously observant, their experience in the training school and on the wards was strictly secular. Their sisterhood was one of experience, not creed or dogma. One of the things that bound them together was the fact that all were unmarried. Additionally, as the male physicians who ran the Medical School were well aware, keeping the student nurses single also kept them in a more dependent state.
This dependency took many forms and carried numerous corresponding restrictions. In the early days, KU nurses were required to live on the top floor of the University’s Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital in Rosedale (now a part of present-day Kansas City, Kansas).
Although room and board were provided without charge in partial compensation for the 60-hour work weeks the student nurses were required to put in at the hospital as part of their apprenticeship-style training, “house rules” dictated their personal schedules and limited personal freedoms. For example, use of the telephone was restricted. Meals were served on a set schedule and eating at times other than these formal dining hours was not allowed. Overnight visitors were strictly forbidden.
In 1929, by which time the KU School of Medicine and its Bell Memorial Hospital had relocated to the present-day location at 39th and Rainbow in Kansas City, Kansas, nursing students moved into a new home. Adjoined to the north side of the hospital building, it was named Hinch Hall in honor of S. Milo Hinch, superintendent of nursing at KU from 1913-22.
The new dormitory had inferior plumbing that occasionally overflowed at inopportune times. According to a paper prepared by Hester I Thurston, Mary A. Eisenbise and Rita Clifford for the Kansas State Board of Nursing in 1990, Hinch Hall ”also provided living quarters for the Superintendent so she had easy surveillance of the students.” Not all of the living experiences in this hall were restrictive. It also served as “…the scene of many pleasant occasions, such as alumni teas, pinning ceremonies, initiation into Sigma Theta Tau [the nursing honor society] and school dances.”
Of great importance in increasing the number of nursing students was the level of status accorded nurses by applicants and the general population. In the 1920s the other profession open to young women most frequently was teaching. In her dissertation on the early history of the KU School of Nursing, Shirley Veith offered several reasons why many young women chose nursing over teaching during the 1920s.
“First, it provided an opportunity to get away from the country and marriage to a farmer.” Teaching would have most likely kept them isolated in their rural communities.
The second reason for choosing nursing was that it “…was more appealing to these young women than teaching. Not only did it give a sense of serving others,” according to Veith, “…but it also required intellectual effort and skill comparable to teaching and, perhaps, college work.”
From the perspective of the medical school faculty, the commencement of the baccalaureate degree program in nursing in 1929 resulted in improvements in the quality of students recruited for nursing. According to Veith, Wahl later observed, “The (baccalaureate) program is naturally attracting a higher quality of young woman to the profession of nursing.” From his standpoint, one increased the status of nurses by attracting higher status women into the work.
Regardless of what kind of social status was held by student nurses, they had to accustom themselves to hard work and long hours. As Veith has noted from what amounts to a diary entry for September 25, 1936, the work day of one student nurse went like this: “5:45 a.m. Up and to work until 10:00. Class, 10:00 to 11:00. Work until 12:30. Ate. Pediatrics, 1:00 to 2:15. Home and slept until 4:00. Duty: 4:00 to 8:00. Home with headache and took two aspirins.” From all indications, this was not an unusual day at all. It was repeated six days a week.
Such a schedule left precious little time for socializing with their fellow student nurses, let alone dates with boyfriends. Visits home on weekends were allowed only in extreme emergencies because of the six-day-a-week work schedule on the wards. As a result, it is surprising to consider that these young women had any time to think about marriage.
But, in fact, they did consider such things and pursue relationships when possible. Otherwise, the change in rules in 1941 would never have come about. Still, it is possible that one accompanying rule change passed by the Nursing Committee on the same day as the marriage rule had even more immediate impact. The committee changed the requirement for shoes and stockings from the women having to provide “black oxfords and stockings” to allowing the students to wear white shoes and stockings.
This was a small step, but for young women the change from black to white was huge in their image of themselves. Prior to this time, student nurses believed the black shoes and stockings were “old-fashioned” and made them appear dowdy.
Even before the relaxation of the marriage and black oxford rule, the student nurses sought and received permission to organize their own student council to provide organized input from the students to the school administration in 1937. While it is not recorded as such, it is quite likely that this was a channel by which the desire for the marriage rule change passed.
Archival records at the University of Kansas Medical Center are unclear as to whether there was a mass rush to the altar following the elimination of the prohibition against married students. Of greater significance than the number of recorded student weddings, however, is the fact that the abolition of this rule became one more step on the long road to seeing nurses as students on par with all other college students as opposed to being underpaid quasi-employees.
It is also likely, but unsubstantiated that a greater number of married students applied for admission to the KU nursing program during the World War II years that followed. In any event, the action gave student nurses greater latitude in their personal lives.
During the late 1960s, just as similar movements occurred on residential college campuses across the nation, so too, the student nurses sought and received permission to end closing hours that mandated their return to the student nurse residence by a particular time each evening. Similarly, more and more student nurses asked and received permission to live outside of the nursing residence hall altogether.
Ultimately, the KU Medical Center exited from providing the women’s dormitory function altogether. (The present-day Eleanor Taylor Building, originally built as a successor nursing student residence to Hinch Hall, was remodeled for office and classroom space for the School of Nursing. Hinch Hall itself was torn down in 1998.)
With the implementation of off-campus living in the 1970s, the era of close supervision and round-the-clock control of student nurses’ activities came to an end. As in the academic program, so in this social sphere as well, the University of Kansas Nursing School in the KU Medical Center had evolved into a strictly academic program in which the institution relinquished its in loco parentis authority that had long been in place to control the students and make them available at any hour day or night for medical service.
In the early days of the Nurse Training School one student was dismissed over an incident where she cooked waffles for two medical students in the hospital kitchen late at night when all three of them were on duty. She was not, in fact, dismissed because she made the waffles, but because she did not tell the truth when questioned by nursing superintendent Milo Hinch.
In the world of the twenty-first century, an activity like preparing a simple snack seems quite benign, but in the early days of the apprenticeship program in the Nurse Training School such fraternization was forbidden and breaking the rules resulted in quick and summary action. Ultimately, the removal of such rules placed ever more individual responsibility on the students themselves.
As the vocation of nursing grew into the profession of nursing through the course of the twentieth century at the KU School of Nursing, both students and faculty took increasingly greater responsibility for their own destinies.
From an organizational standpoint, it seemed increasingly anachronistic to retain the Nursing Department as an appendage of the Medical School. That trend reached its logical conclusion in 1974 when Nursing separated from the School of Medicine to become one of three professional schools, including the School of Allied Health, that occupy the present-day University of Kansas Medical Center campus.
William S. Worley
Adjunct Professor of History
University of Missouri-Kansas City