The first two decades of the 20th century were a time of rapid innovation for health care delivery in northeastern Maryland. First, Union Hospital of Cecil County opened its doors to the community in 1908, filling a critical medical gap since inpatient care required travel to Baltimore, Wilmington,or Philadelphia.
As local doctors moved from treating the sick and injured at home to hospitalizing people, it became rapidly evident that the hospital needed trained caregivers to assist in the operation of the facility. Once the medical staff pointed out the shortage of aides to provide around-the-clock care, supervise patients, and assist in medical procedures, the Board agreed to another enhancement, the opening of a training school for nurses.
Young women 20 to 30 years old who had completed one year of high school were invited to apply for admission to the inaugural class. Candidates provided three references, including one from a clergyman who could attest to good moral character.
Pupils participated in a three year course of instruction leading to a diploma in nursing. In exchange for the education, lectures, practical experience, and room and board, each trainee received a monthly stipend of $5 (about $125 today) and a three-week summer vacation annually. There was no charge for tuition as the students exchanged their labor for the clinical experience.
While in the program these women carried out most patient care activities, as the institution had a small number of employees. In 1914, the Superintendent was Maida G. Campbell., R.N. and the nursing staff consisted of a matron, Isabella W. Peterson, and an orderly, William S. Moore. The superintendent also served as the head nurse, supervising 11 “pupil nurses.” These trainees did the bulk of the work, taking on everything from housekeeping, food service, and laundry to supervised care.
This apprenticeship approach was a common model in that era. It flourished throughout the United States as it offered women an opportunity for a vocation, improved care of the sick, and decreased operational cost, as students provided care for a minimal cost, according to the Journal of Nursing.
To fulfill their obligations eager students juggled floor duty, classes, and studying for exams. Classroom activities included lectures, recitations, and demonstrations, the daily instruction taking place from 4 to 5 p.m. The local physicians provided theoretical and applied lectures while the Superintendent, Miss Campbell, provided practical instruction. Most student learning occurred at beside, as this practical experience supplemented the daily lecture.
This was all taking place at a time when it was rare for women to live or work outside the family home. But this route provided a professional career, and these early pioneers helped open new opportunities for women as time went on.
The first six students enrolled in October 1911. Three years later, the Cecil County News observed that an “event in local history took place in Elkton” on June 17, 1914, “when the first class of the Training School for Nurses of Union Hospital graduated and diplomas were presented to four young ladies who had completed the course.”
At the ceremony, the credentialed professionals, Alice Mary Denver, Stella Sanbourn Graves, Mary Turner King, and Georgia May Miller, proudly dressed in white uniforms received the coveted Union Hospital Cap and diploma while standing on the stage of the Opera House in Elkton. “All commencements are interesting, but this one was unusually so, marking the entrance of our local hospital into a new sphere of usefulness.” These professional nurses had learned the hospital routine, sat in classes, and observed surgical and obstetrical procedures.
The institution admitted a class annually, except for 1922. The last cohort to graduate from the school received diplomas in 1927, apparently. After that year, a commencement exercise has not been located and it is assumed that the school closed.
By the time the hospital sent its last class out into the world, professional diplomas in hand, 40 nurses had learned the practice by providing service to the hospital and demonstrating the required competencies. They thus received the Union Hospital School of Nursing Diploma as they began a professional career.