On March 7, 1965, the news hit about “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights demonstrators marching to support the voting rights movement were attacked by state troopers and police wielding billy clubs and tear gas after they crossed the Edmund-Pettus Bridge near Selma, Alabama. At the time, Sister Antona Ebo was hard at work as Director of Medical Records at St. Mary’s Infirmary in St. Louis.
On Wednesday, March 10, 1965, she and several other sisters and clergymen boarded a rickety airplane bound for Selma with several other sisters and clergymen to protest the attack and join the Rev. Martin Luther King in his second attempt to cross the bridge on the way from Selma to the state capital.
Once there, Sister Antona, the only African-American sister in the crowd, found herself thrust to the front of the march. Before the marchers reached the end of the block, they were stopped by rows of helmeted policemen standing shoulder to shoulder, three deep, billy clubs in hand.
In the midst of it all, a microphone was thrust in front of Sister Antona. She spoke simply and from her heart into a sea of Confederate flags: “I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.” She later recalled, “We wore our full regalia of habits at that time. We got a lot of people shook up who thought we should be in church with our hands folded.” Many years later, she added, “Selma happened really because it was the time and place to take a risk. Taking a risk has its payoff, too.”
This was neither the first nor the last risk Sister Antona has taken. A pioneer from her teenage years, she was the first African-American to graduate from her high school in Bloomington, Illinois. After she was rejected by numerous nursing schools because of her race, she applied to St. Mary’s Infirmary School of Nursing for Negroes in St. Louis. In 1946 she was one of the first three African-American women to join the Sisters of St. Mary (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary). In 1967 she was the first African-American woman executive director of a Catholic U.S. hospital—St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wis.
In 1971, Sister Antona became the assistant executive director of St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. She later served for several years as a chaplain in the hospital’s pastoral care program. In 1989 the National Black Sisters’ Conference conferred on her the Harriet Tubman Award, honoring her as “called to be a Moses to the people.” Together with Civil Rights legend Rosa Parks, she was chosen to receive the Eucharist from Pope John Paul II during his 1999 visit to the United States.
Sister Antona has continued to speak out, “…standing up for the dignity of African-Americans, of women, of all God’s creatures. And others have listened. For many, she is the face of the Civil Rights Movement.” And through it all, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, “she has acted as if each day was bigger and brighter than the one before it.”
On May 12, 1923, St. Mary’s was one of 8,000 hospitals in the United States to host an open house to honor Florence Nightingale, “pioneer founder of the modern training school for nurses.” Nursing had become a respected job for women primarily because of Nightingale. During the 1840s, a time when nurses were usually poor women with little training in patient care, Florence Nightingale, an affluent woman from England, trained as a nurse in Germany. She was considered a hero for caring for soldiers during the Crimean War of the 1850s. After her book Notes on Nursing was published in 1859, many American women read it and became nurses, too.
More than 60 years after her book, St. Mary’s Hospital decided to open a school of nursing, an idea precipitated by the need to expand its overcrowded facility and then to increase the size of the staff accordingly. In addition, changing times called for the opening of an obstetrical department, where women could deliver their babies in the safety of a hospital rather than at home. However, by Canon Law at the time, sister-nurses were not permitted to attend to maternity patients, so provisions had to be made to ensure coverage of this proposed department, too. Thus the School of Nursing was organized to help provide the many more nurses who would be needed once the hospital expansion more than doubled its size in 1926.
More nurses also meant additional nursing facilities. The sisters purchased three buildings behind the hospital to use for a nurses’ residence, classroom and demonstration room. The first class of seven students was admitted on October 15, 1923. In 1924, with 25 students enrolled in the school, a fourth house was added.
As nursing education expanded in subsequent decades, the three-year diploma program offered by hospital schools came to an end. The last class of St. Mary’s graduates was admitted in 1971 and graduated in 1974. From 1926, when the first class graduated, until its closing in 1974, a total of 1,491 nurses graduated from the school. Many of these graduates became part of St. Mary’s staff and helped make it the world-class hospital it is today.
The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 million and 50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe,” this influenza was a global disaster. Influenza was responsible for half the deaths of U.S. soldiers who died in Europe during World War I. Estimates are that more than 600,000 Americans died of influenza during the epidemic, including more than 200 people from Madison.
When the Spanish Flu struck Madison, St. Mary’s Hospital was already filled beyond capacity. Part of the hospital was soon vacated to establish isolation facilities for the influenza patients. These new patients were primarily “soldier boys,” young men training for war at the university army camp.
Several of the sisters caring for the soldiers became ill themselves. Thirty-two-year-old Sister Mary Fortunata Hellmig lost her life nursing the boys. She had been one of the first nuns to work at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1912 and now was in charge of the floor given over to the patients from the university camp.
A newspaper article described her self-sacrificing labors:
“The Angel” of St. Mary’s Hospital is dead—a martyr to the cause of Democracy.
After nursing 22 soldier boys, victims of Spanish influenza, night and day for two weeks, Sister Mary Fortunata died last night. She contracted the disease while watching over the suffering army men. …
Three weeks ago when influenza spread terror in the city, “The Angel,” hearing that the hospitals were rejecting sufferers from the malady, cried “For Shame.” She pleaded with her superior that the doors be opened to “flu” victims. “Take in the soldier boys who are ill,” she begged—the boys who had no tender hand to nurse them.
Finally, the sick solders were admitted. “The Angel” was happy. She worked and planned. Thru the long hours of the night she watched over her charges in the two wards that had been set aside for victims of influenza. Urging by sisters and the mother superior failed to get her to leave the boys in khaki.
But it happened one day that “The Angel” could no longer move above. She was too weak.
For three days she suffered with the same malady that she had driven from the soldier boys. But she was never too weak to pray, too weak to smile.
At the end of the third day the Angel of St. Mary’s answered another call.
Many of the soldiers wept at her grave and one of them exclaimed, “Why did I not die instead of her? My life is not worth anything but she could have done so much good.”
The history of smallpox’s rise and fall is a success story for modern medicine and public health. During the 20th century alone, smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300 to 500 million deaths. In 1967 the World Health Organization (WHO) started a worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox, and in 1980 the WHO finally declared the world free of smallpox.
In the midst of one such smallpox epidemic on a raw November day in 1872, Mother Mary Odilia Berger arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. She had traveled from Germany with four companion sisters and one candidate for sisterhood. They came with little more than their experience in caring for the sick and their love for others. Their resources may have been scanty, but their mission—to serve God by serving the poor—was magnificent.
When they arrived in St. Louis, they found the city in the throes of a smallpox epidemic. They began nursing smallpox victims the day after their arrival. Because of their faithful devotion during the smallpox epidemic of 1872, they soon became lovingly known as “The Smallpox Sisters.” Five years later, they opened their first hospital, St. Mary’s Infirmary, in St. Louis.
Fast forward to September 22, 1912. That’s when St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, became the religious sisters’ eighth hospital to open. Just two and half years later, in May of 1915, eight of the Madison sisters and one lay nurse were stricken with smallpox. It’s likely that they contracted the disease from one of the patients the sisters had nursed. The sisters with smallpox were segregated in cottages on the grounds of St. Mary’s Hospital.
Because of the crisis brought on by this smallpox epidemic, St. Mary’s Hospital was forced to ask doctors to take patients to other hospitals to avoid further overburdening those sisters who could remain on duty. In spite of this, the hospital continued to be occupied at full capacity during this trying period. Fortunately, all the sisters recovered after a few weeks, and the smallpox crisis passed.
In 1969, journalist Dennis Cassano wrote a tribute to St. Mary’s (when it was known as St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center) that was published in the hospital’s annual report “for People and Community Service.” A reporter who worked with Cassano for nearly 30 years said, “Denny could go through documents and find the essential thing.” In his poetic tribute to St.Mary’s presented below, Dennis Cassano found many essential things to note.
I am a pile of neatly stacked bricks, glass and steel, held together by rivets, mortar and love.
I am machinery whirring 24 hours a day all year long, healing, lighting, pumping, testing, examining, striving for life.
I am needles, brooms, scalpels, stethoscopes, test tubes, X-ray film, wrenches, wheelchairs, crutches, cribs, dishes, adding machines, monitors, textbooks, sterilizers, electrodes, whirlpool baths, diapers, shrouds and crucifixes, the tools of humanity.
I am physicians, nurses, carpenters, aides, psychiatrists, dieticians, plumbers, nuns, laundry workers, therapists, pharmacists, electricians, custodians, clergymen, students, clerks, technicians, boiler room workers, engineers, cooks, patients, watchmen, volunteers, teachers, welfare workers, architects, and God, workers for mankind.
I am tragedy, hope, despair, trust, fear, discouragement, frustration, joy, relief, satisfaction, monotony, resignation, pity, apathy, energy, a reflection of the world’s emotions.
I am blind, maimed, deaf, confused, twisted, paralyzed, burned, scarred, drunk, cold, starved and sore.
I am Hippocrates, Luke, Florence Nightingale, Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Jesus Christ.
I am all of life.
I am St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center
From the very beginning, St. Mary’s has been a busy hospital. According to the hospital’s first report, covering 1912 through 1914, there were 3,468 operations. A large share of them were appendectomies, tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies. As Madison’s population grew during the next decade, demand for St. Mary’s services increased commensurately. By 1922, the hospital was so overcrowded that emergency cases frequently were distributed among cots in the halls. Hence, it was with great relief and pride when the new North and South Wings of the hospital opened in 1926.
Surgeons particularly welcomed the new operating facilities now available. Dr. Joseph Dean, hospital chief of staff, wrote a newspaper article singing the praises of the new surgical facilities. His description of the new facilities with their cutting-edge technology provides a fascinating lens through which to view the state of surgical practices in 1926.
“…The surgical department on the fourth floor of the north wing spells the last word in completeness. It presents three major operating rooms, two for clean cases and one for septic cases, the latter isolated from the two clean rooms. Including the latest and most efficient high pressure sterilizers, no expense has been spared in all necessary equipment to enable surgeons to carry out their work. Each room is supplied with the last word in operating tables and constructed as to enable the surgeon to place the patient in any desired position without loss of time or effort. The smallest detail has not been overlooked nor has expense been spared. Each operating room is equipped with a late model nitrous oxide machine for gas anesthesia.
“Adjoining one of the main operating rooms is the urological room where all cystoscopic bladder and kidney examinations are on a table specially constructed to enable X-ray pictures of the kidneys or other parts of the genito-urinary tract to be taken without moving or transporting the patient to the main X-ray room. This has meant a tremendous saving of time to the surgeon and necessarily eliminated a great deal of discomfort to the patient. More than either, however, it has resulted in more accurate and more scientific work to the advantage of the patient.
“Adjoining the urological room are two nose and throat rooms fitted for all types of nasal and throat operations and treatments. Adjoining these rooms is the eye room devoted exclusively to eye work. Then comes an operating room devoted exclusively to all dental surgery and extractive work.
“Placing the operating room, general laboratories, X-ray department and specialty rooms all on the fourth floor of one wing has been a great advantage as it allows a cooperation between the various departments and various technicians not hitherto possible. For instance: At operation, a questionable growth may be found in a patient, the character of which may not be determined by the gross examination. With the laboratory in close approximation to the operating room, an accurate microscopical examination may be had in a few minutes and the type of operation changed accordingly….”
Adding its voice to the chorus of hallelujahs for the new surgical facilities, the Wisconsin State Journal was particularly smitten with some of the unique features of the surgical department.
“Seven operations may be underway at St. Mary’s Hospital at one time with each operating room in service completely equipped with all the proper and modern facilities. One of the many features is the fact that there is a special operating department provided for each branch of surgery.
“…Another new surgical feature which will be available to Madison people for the first time at St. Mary’s hospital consists of two operating rooms where nose and throat operations may be conducted and with the latest equipment and conveniences at hand.
“…St. Mary’s is also blazing a new trail in local surgical practice. While the equipment is used for the most part by Madison surgeons, outside surgeons who secure the endorsement of the hospital’s executive committee may also use the department providing they engage a member of the hospital staff as a consultant in each case. The purpose of this requirement is that if a patient should require immediate attention when the surgeon in charge may be some distance away, a local practitioner who understands the case may be called in readily and intelligently attend to the patient’s requirements until his regular doctor has an opportunity to get to Madison.”
The 1920s were a prolific period for new inventions and technological advances that had a major impact on the way people lived. Many labor-labor saving, entertainment and comfort-enhancing items that we take for granted today were invented or developed into viable commercial products during this decade—electric irons, toasters, refrigerators, air-conditioners, radios and vacuum cleaners, to name a few. Today it is difficult to imagine the excitement generated when such marvels of modern science were first demonstrated to the general public. They were exciting times.
Thus, when St. Mary’s installed electric refrigerators in the 1926 hospital additions, it was a newsworthy event. The Capital Times reported “One of the interesting features in the line of equipment in the new St. Mary’s hospital are the electrical refrigerators. Each refrigerator, of which there are 22 throughout the building, is cooled with a Kelvinator electrical refrigerating unit, instead of artificial ice. This assures the patients in the building that their food is always kept in the most sanitary condition possible, due to the fact that there is no contamination because of ice being placed in the refrigerator which may be unclean or contaminated with germs.”
The reporter marveled at the refrigerators’ capability to generate “perfect sanitary ice which is frozen right in the Kelvinator.” And, the dietitians could freeze in those same trays “appetizing and dainty desserts for tempting the appetite of the convalescent.”
Before 1910, many so-called medical schools were simply commercial enterprises whose only entrance requirement was an ability to pay the costs. In 1910, the Carnegie Foundation published the “Flexner Report,” one of the most influential studies ever presented in the medical field. Abner Flexner’s highly critical report on medical education indicated that the current methods of medical education had “… resulted in enormous over-production at a low level, and that, whatever the justification in the past, the present situation… can be more effectively met by a reduced output of well trained men than by further inflation with an inferior product.” Flexner argued for stricter entrance requirements, better facilities, higher fees and tougher standards.
A few years later, the American College of Surgeons launched its own reform campaign after concluding that many hospitals were unfit “to allow the adequate performance of surgery.” In subsequent years, the call for hospital reform met with considerable resistance from people who had contributed to the building of these hospitals. Civic pride was not about to admit flaws and weaknesses in the institutions it had built.
St. Mary’s Hospital, however, took up the call for higher standards and initiated a reform campaign. The controversial nature of this campaign can be seen in excerpts from the speech for the 1926 dedication of the new hospital additions by Dr. William F. Lorenz, the president of the hospital staff.
“…Within the past five years, hospitals have been placed on a higher and more scientific plane than in all the previous years of their existence due to the insistent demand on the part of the medical profession that the incompetent, unethical and unscrupulous men should be driven from hospitals. To that end, the authorities are compelled to more and more carefully scrutinize the abilities of various physicians and surgeons doing work therein. Hospitals are public institutions, having duty to the public and should protect patients from the incompetent.
“…St. Mary’s has met this situation and closed its doors to some Madison physicians, whose ability they had a right to question. It was a disagreeable and painful ordeal for the Sisters, but feeling they were right, they never wavered…. Following their admirable ruling, they have had heaped upon their heads criticism, some of which has been brutal… What do we as medical men think of the ruling? Are they right or wrong? I think there is but one answer: They are absolutely right and every right thinking medical man who has a pride in his profession will hasten to applaud them.”
Back in May 1969, in conjunction with National Hospital Week, St. Mary’s newsletter celebrated “the progress, the desire to improve, and the concern to provide better care” by contrasting current hospital life and health care practices with descriptions of St. Mary’s Hospital in the late 1920s and early 1930s, based on newsletter articles of that era.
A 1927 newsletter, for example, celebrated the hospital’s new Diagnostic Department, which “supplants the old trial and error method of diagnosing disease by supplying all the modern facilities necessary to arrive at a definite determination of conditions which cause disease.”
Another story from around that time was headlined “Summer Comforts—Features of St. Mary’s which make this hospital popular in summer and all the year round.” The article was trying to correct the impression “still held by many that a hospital is a gloomy, depressing place.” For the new mothers in the Obstetrical Department, for example, St. Mary’s had the answer for the hot summer days: “Both mothers and infants are just as comfortable as it is possible to make them regardless of the temperature outside. If there are breezes anywhere, there are breezes sweeping the upper floors, where the maternity department is located, from the lakes which the department overlooks. Electric fans assure complete comfort in any kind of weather.”
The February 1929 newsletter reported on ways to keep babies from catching “that persistent old ailment” that apparently has never changed—the common cold. “Remember,” the article advises, “always keep colds and the baby apart and the baby will never have a cold. If he does catch cold, however, put him in bed. If there is a fever, call a doctor.” It also counseled against giving him a cathartic without consulting a doctor. “We know now, in the light of more recent medical study, that many of the old-time ‘stomach aches’ or ‘bilious attacks’ were acute appendicitis, and a ‘good dose of castor oil’ may be just the wrong thing to give,” the newsletter explained.
For a more serious problem—pneumonia—the prescribed treatment was a warm sponge bath, hot camphor oil to chest, pneumonia jacket (a jacket used to help keep patients warm in the treatment of pneumonia prior to the introduction of antibiotics), icebag to the head, and spirits of frumenti (whiskey) as a stimulant.
The 1969 comparative newsletter article concludes: “The progress made by science and medicine in the last three decades assures patients at St. Mary’s today that they will receive much superior care than they would have in 1930. It is comforting that 30 years from now, others interested in hospitals will look back at the type of care provided now and view them in the same way the procedures and techniques of 1930 are considered today.”
Day 94: “We Had to Keep Their Hair Neat”: Nurses and Nursing Students during St. Mary’s First 25 Years
The responsibilities of nurses changed dramatically during the 20th and 21st centuries. In the early 1900s, nurses spent much of their time sterilizing equipment and administering leeches to treat inflammations. They relied heavily on poultices, stupes (a hot, wet, often medicated cloth used as a compress), and plasters to relieve everything from congestion to colic. In the 1950s, a nurse’s responsibilities may have included patient care and sharpening needles. Today, the addition of other staff allows nurses to focus solely on patient care, and that includes using computers to provide them with critical patient care-related information. As recently as the 1980s, however, a nurse wouldn’t have known what a personal computer was, let alone how to use one to access information.
Nurse training has also changed dramatically during the past hundred years. In the early 1900s, most nurses received their education from hospitals, not colleges or universities. While earning diplomas at hospital-based schools, student nurses provided the facility with two to three years of cheap and abundant labor, typically working 10- to 12-hour shifts seven days a week, with only a few hours dedicated to classroom instruction. Historians describe early clinical training programs as rigorous and exhausting.
Below are some of the responsibilities for nurses and rules governing student nurses during St. Mary’s first 25 years.
Regular tasks for nurses included scrubbing and varnishing floors, housekeeping chores in patients’ rooms, record-keeping and attending to patients’ personal needs. As there were no beauticians, nurses were expected to manage patients’ hair, too. Sister Mary Priscilla Fister had once said, “We had to keep their hair neat, and in those days women wore long hair. There were no beauty operators then, and many women had a certain way they liked to have their hair fixed.”
In response to the critical shortage of nurses in Madison, St. Mary’s opened its Training School for Nurses. Students worked a seven-day week with about 56 hours of duty and class. They received a $10 monthly stipend. Their duties included mopping floors, washing windows and preparing food. In addition to work and studies, the sisters planned social activities for the nursing students, including sewing and knitting for missions, choir practice, radio concerts and spelling bees. Social occasions included Christmas tableaus, Easter egg hunts and May crowning which “afforded much merriment.”
Some rules and regulations from the St. Mary’s School of Nursing:
- Perfect silence must be observed while waiting for and on the elevator, also going up and down stairs.
- Nurses must make their personal appearance an object of extreme care but at the same time may not use powder or paint nor wear jewelry or flowers while on duty.
- Nurses are to have no conversation with one another while on duty except on matters pertaining to their work.
Excerpts from a report on St. Mary’s obstetrics (OB) unit:
“On the whole, the patients seemed to receive adequate attention. All the floors apparently were kept in good condition by the night nurses. The bedside tables were not cluttered with fruit, food, etc. All patients received a cleansing bedbath every day. The techniques were exceptionally good. A sterile bath basin, sterile washcloth and sterile soap solution are provided each infant. Every OB patient is given a demonstration in bathing her baby by an OB nurse between 7-9 p.m. Nursing students wash out all the linen and do all the cleaning.”