Nurses’ Week in 2014 will mark an important milestone in preserving the history and legacy of East Tennessee’s Knoxville General Hospital School of Nursing, which closed in 1956.
Most of the buildings and much of the hospital’s history are gone now. As a result of nearly two years’ worth of collective efforts, the stories and memories of the nursing school and nearly 900 incredible women who graduated from there will be safeguarded forever at a permanent museum exhibit located on the joint campus of East Tennessee State University and the VA Medical Center in Johnson City.
A Nurses’ Week proclamation and exhibit unveiling will be held on Tuesday, 12:30 p.m., at the museum.
The Museum at Mountain Home, a joint project of the Veterans Administration Medical Center, East Tennessee State University, and the city of Johnson City, is located in the historic mess hall (“clock tower” or “bell tower”) building — known as Building 34 — on the VA campus.
The museum’s mission is to illustrate the history of the VA Medical Center at Mountain Home and the story of the development of health care in Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southeastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, and Southern West Virginia.
The museum’s displays encompass the people, events, and activities that have shaped health care in the region.
The collected information and artifacts will be available for anyone who has an interest in the development of nursing education and practice in South Central Appalachia, as well as areas where KGH graduates were leaders – the expansion of public health in Appalachia, rural visiting nurses, and industrial medicine in such places as coal-mining camps.
After graduation, KGH nurses went to every region in the U. S. to work, and many are recognized today as pioneers in the nursing profession.
Established by the City of Knoxville in 1902, KGH was one of the first schools of nursing in the region, and women came from nearly everywhere within a 100-mile radius. As the school’s reputation developed, students came from as far away as southern Florida and even Arizona. Often, women bypassed established schools closer to their homes in other states in favor of an education at the nationally recognized Knoxville hospital.
Some of the trainees were recent high school graduates. Others were widows who left small children with family members while they pursued training. Still others were more mature women, often with college backgrounds and previous work experience as teachers. Most shared similar life stories: possibly orphaned or had lost one parent young, and mostly from lower economic backgrounds.
“My recently widowed mother had to sell timber from our farm outside Rogersville so I could pay tuition,” recalls Bernice Davis Gibbs, a 1941 graduate who served as an Army nurse in both World War II and Korea.
“I couldn’t even afford a 2-cent stamp to send a postcard and let her know I’d gotten to Knoxville on the train OK.”
Eliza Baker Hix, a 1943 graduate, almost didn’t get to attend training at KGH. Someone gave her enough money to pay for tuition, books, and uniforms, but Eliza didn’t have proper shoes. Everyone in her rural Hancock County community donated pennies, nickels, and dimes to collect enough for Eliza’s shoes. Eliza eventually completed post-graduate study and became director of public health nursing in Sumner County,.
“Those are just two of nearly 900 equally amazing personal and professional life stories,” said Billie McNamara, local historian and daughter of a KGH graduate.
Two years ago, McNamara began a “little research project” to present an overview of KGH and its nursing program at the annual KGH alumni luncheon. Little did anyone know her research would expand as far as it has.
McNamara began compiling a list of graduates and researching every single one of them.
“It has been a privilege to do this research. I have called people in every state – sometimes asking them about people they only know from family legends – trying to find stories, historical documents, and photos we can either get donated or duplicated,” McNamara said.
“We started a Web site and a Facebook page, and I have spent innumerable hours reading microfilm. We’re making connections and getting the word out.”
McNamara has made important connections with historians and archivists at ETSU, Appalachian State University (Boone, NC), Lincoln Memorial University, and The University of the South (Sewanee, TN). She has explored documents related to nursing programs as far away as Nashville and Chattanooga. McNamara and her primary research partner, ETSU assistant professor of nursing Sharon Loury, Ph.D., R.N., probably know more about early nurses’ training in East Tennessee than anyone — including institutional archivists at the various schools. Dr. Loury has begun documenting the early practice nurses in southern Appalachia who served numerous rural communities. Loury also compiles information about other historical aspects of nursing in the region.
“Why does this effort matter? Because we can trace direct effects and connections between these pioneer nurses and those practicing in our region today. The development of nurses’ training and the profession of nursing in South Central Appalachia tracks with the modernization and deployment of health care programs in the region in a variety of practice settings, including the institution of public health departments,” said Dr. Loury.
“It appears everywhere we turn in researching the history of regional health care, KGH nurses are involved somehow. The overlaps seem endless,” Dr. Loury said.
Every graduate recalls working eight-hour shifts, six days a week, in the hospital wards in addition to attending classes and studying. They had great responsibility, often left in charge of an entire ward. Because KGH was the city hospital where indigents and accident victims were taken, and because KGH had the only contagious-disease unit in the region, students were exposed to diagnostic and treatment methods they may not have otherwise experienced.
This sometimes harsh environment created incredibly strong, life-long bonds among the women. Whatever life threw at them — even to the point of spending three years held by the Japanese as a WWII prisoner-of-war on Bataan – KGH nurses survived and thrived.
“Resilience and caring, foundational in the nursing profession, are common themes reflected by KGH graduates,” said Dr. Loury.
“Surviving hardships in training and practice provided these nurses with stamina and the tools to cope with death, disease, wars, and losses that might have otherwise overwhelmed them.”
KGH graduates received a comprehensive education and varied clinical experiences that provided them with strong practical skills and exceptional diagnostic abilities.
Commenting on the poor conditions at a field hospital in Africa during World War II, a doctor who’d done his residency at KGH remarked, “Send for 10 General nurses, and we’ll have this place in perfect order in no time.”
Many early East Tennessee physicians are said to have preferred having one General nurse to assist them, rather than a whole staff from other schools.
During World War II, the U.S. needed more nurses to work in public health and industry on the homefront. As a result, the Cadet Nursing Corps was created.
Women received stipends, and schools received funds for their training programs. One hundred twenty-two cadets graduated from KGH, and they will be specially recognized at the KGH nursing exhibit’s unveiling in May. Several, aged 90 and above, plan to be present to receive their certificates.
A significant number of KGH graduates served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, both in war and in peacetime. Many had multiple enlistments and some made the military a career. All are proud veterans.
Virginia Sneed Dixon, a 95-year-old member of KGH class of 1941, has vivid memories of her service over a 10-year span.
“When President Roosevelt said they needed nurses after Pearl Harbor was bombed, I wrote him and asked where to sign up,” Virginia recalls.
After the war ended, Virginia worked at the nuclear facilities in Oak Ridge.
“I decided I liked the Army, so I went back in,” she said. Virginia served at hospitals in both Korea and Japan during the Korean Conflict. She remained connected to the military, having married a career Army man who retired in the 1970's.
Virginia Dixon was one of a handful of women who came from the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina to train at KGH.
“In addition to young white women, KGH opened its doors to young women from the Eastern Band Cherokee Indian tribe near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These Cherokee nurses remember a strict learning environment and a lot of hard work, but also acceptance and friendship from their student nurse days,” said Dr. Phoebe Pollitt, R. N., associate professor of nursing history at Appalachian State University.
Trudy Bradley Fann, aged 90 and a cousin of Virginia Dixon, is another Cherokee nurse who attended KGH.
Trudy received a scholarship from the Daughters of the American Revolution to assist with expenses while she was in training at KGH. The DAR called Trudy the “little Indian girl” and reported on her career progress in the national DAR magazine. Trudy retired from the VA Medical Center and now lives in Johnson City.
The Cherokee nurses were not the only relatives who attended KGH. Mothers and daughters, numerous cousins, and several sets of sisters graduated from KGH during its existence. Often, one woman would graduate, go to work, and earn enough to pay her sibling’s way.
It may seem strange that a museum exhibit for a Knoxville nursing school is going to be permanently housed in Johnson City, but the historians say it makes perfect sense.
The Museum at Mountain Home recognized the importance of making the information and artifacts freely available to the public, especially because there is a deep connection between KGH nurses and the Northeast Tennessee/Southwest Virginia region.
The KGH exhibit will be located beside exhibits donated to the Museum at Mountain Home by the Knoxville Academy of Medicine when its local museum closed.
“Nursing holds a unique place in South Central Appalachia, where a tapestry of culture and environment steeped in history helps define early nursing in this region along with the health care imparted to its residents. In addition to hospital-based care, early nurses provided care through settlement schools, mountain missions, and coal company towns, and rode horseback to visit families in the remote areas,” said Martha Whaley, interim associate dean for Learning Resources at the Quillen College of Medicine and Director of the Museum at Mountain Home.
The KGH exhibit serves as a cornerstone of the museum’s history of nursing collection, with numerous artifacts, manuscripts, personal stories, and photos.
“Viewing regional nurses’ education and practice through the lens of early nursing schools such as KGH School of Nursing helps illustrate the significant link between formalized nursing education and advances in regional healthcare,” said Dr. Loury.
KGH graduates were instrumental in founding the Tennessee State Nurses’ Association, and KGH graduate Irene Brown Kaserman (KGH class of 1943) drafted the organization’s Code of Ethics for nursing practice.
Martha Rogers (KGH class of 1936) turned to nursing after three years in pre-med at the University of Tennessee. Rogers, who earned multiple graduate degrees, was instrumental in advancing public health nursing throughout the U. S. She developed a holistic approach to nursing that is still taught today.
In addition to the KGH museum exhibit, several important results have grown out of the research consortium.
Oral histories are being collected from nurses who completed their training before 1960 in the region, or those who trained elsewhere and came to work in the region.
Dr. Loury is writing a book on the history of health care in the region, focusing on the influence of early practice nurses within the Appalachian region in the development of nursing education and health care programs. Dr. Pollitt is writing a book on Black and Native American trained nurses from the region. She is also heading a project to collect oral histories of nurses from North Carolina or women who went there to train or work. ETSU College of Nursing is developing history of nursing and health care in South Central Appalachia courses, many of which will be available via the Internet.
“Through a collaboration between the ETSU College of Nursing, Appalachian State University, and the Museum at Mountain Home, the heritage of nursing in South Central Appalachia will finally be collected, preserved, and shared. Ultimately, the collection will serve as a teaching tool for health care history students regionally and, through Internet access, globally,” said Whaley.
The public is invited to attend the KGH exhibit’s unveiling. In addition to the formal opening, the Mayor of Johnson City will present a proclamation for Nurses’ Week. KGH graduates who served in the Cadet Nursing Corps will receive certificates of recognition from the U. S. Department of Public Health.
The museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, staffed solely by volunteers and supported through tax-deductible contributions. The exhibits are open free-of-charge to the public during limited hours for guided tours. Call (423) 439-8069 for information.
The Museum’s entrance is located on the West side of the building, up the ramp from 4th Street. Fourth Street is a one-way, north-south street between Maple and Dogwood Streets. The GPS coordinates are 36.308959, -82.376487. A parking permit is required, and those can be obtained in advance by contacting ETSU directly.
Some Cleveland area graduates of the East Tennessee’s Knoxville General Hospital School of Nursing were:
Claudia Rose Erwin Shields, Class of 1934;
Elizabeth Minnie McPheeters Arnold, Class of 1937;
Louise Margaret Guinn, Class of 1938;
Evelyn Elsie Kitts McCoin, Class of 1940;
Lillian Aideen Cole Millaway, Class of 1941;
Ruth Katheryn Lovingood Ensley Chambers, Class of 1949;
Ida Louise Meadows Binder, Class of 1952;
June Loretta Whitehead Fritts, Class of 1956; and
Marilyn Baskette Rowland, Class of 1956.