Uniformly Proud

It took a lot of nursing, but the early alumni of a University of Maryland program have turned souvenirs of their schooling into `a rather important little museum.'

October 30, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

"We washed those caps and starched those caps and fluted them with our little fingers," says Joan Wilson, who has come to Saturday's reunion at the University of Maryland School of Nursing Museum from Shelburne Falls, Mass. She scrutinizes a display of dainty white caps, an indispensable and impractical part of any nursing student's uniform back in the late 1950s when Wilson attended the school.

Nearby, others laugh at the posted sign in another display: "Night Nurse Sleeping in This Room - Please be Quiet." Everywhere graduates young and old recognize friends in photographs, watch oral history videos and marvel at the cumbersome tools with which they learned their craft.

During a weekend of getting reacquainted with one another and touring the school's gleaming new building, alumni amble through the Nursing Museum, which celebrates its first anniversary today. After a year of serving mainly students and graduates, Baltimore's newest museum is ready for a more public presence.

For Burtonsville resident Kathy Paul (class of 1975), the nursing museum is a testament to fortitude. "We did this, we survived," she says. It is inspiring to see women featured in museum displays who are also "standing right here!" she exclaims. Some at the reunion notice the things that haven't changed through the years - bed pans, for example - while others ponder what may have been lost to today's high-tech, yet time-consuming innovations. "There is the real possibility of not having the time to really give the kind of one-to-one care that you would like to be able to do," says Gwen Taylor Rodney, a 1960 graduate who's now a parish nurse for the First United Methodist Church in Chestertown.

Debbie Gilbert Kramer and Sheri Blatt Stern, both class of 1975 and nurse practitioners in the Baltimore area, reflect on the exhibit and how it speaks to their chosen careers. "I still can't think of anything I'd rather do," Stern says.

Since the 1920s, the students and alumni of the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore had collected souvenirs from their education: caps, fluting irons used to pleat them, combat medals, reusable glass syringes, uniforms, textbooks, cupping glasses. A loyal and methodical group, they also preserved class questionnaires, bulletins, letters, diaries, scrapbooks and other ephemera.

The nurses understood that what they had learned, and the lengths they had gone to learn it, were worth remembering. They also realized it was up to them to remember and that each object saved was a touchstone for their memories. They were the school's self-appointed historians.

Yet, in those early years, they had no idea what would become of their keepsakes, mostly stored in closets at home.

It would take decades before the school administration also recognized the value of the artifacts. The notion that memory could serve the institution, as well as a public that may take the ministrations of nurses for granted, was not an obvious one.

The curriculum of the school, which was founded in 1889, had always included a history of nursing, from the work of pioneering nurse educator Florence Nightingale through the present day, but those lessons lacked the personal substance that could emotionally connect nurses to their calling, engendering pride and a sense of identity.

Ellicott City resident and retired nurse Jean Warfield Keenan, her sister and mother were in the "family business." All had graduated from the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Keenan in 1948. Her living link to the school stretched back to the early part of the century, compounding her strong sense of professional heritage.

Keenan and her classmates drew together because many were new to Baltimore, and had to endure nursing school's draconian conditions, including uniform inspections, long hours and strict discipline. "We all lived together, we all suffered through the same things," she explains. "We boosted each other up, we had fun together."

Keenan, Margaret Culler Zell (class of 1939) and other graduates cultivated their collection with the hope of establishing a museum. But for years, "Nobody seemed to be able to get it going," says Zell, who, with Keenan and other graduates, is a museum docent.

In 1992, the alumni association was granted a room in the Louisa Parsons Hall dormitory for its museum. They raised money for drapes, installed carpeting and filled with artifacts a display case purchased from a defunct department store.

It was a home-grown affair, with photographs pinned to a corkboard. The self-taught curators received advice from the Maryland Historical Society and the University of Maryland's Dental School in Baltimore, but for the most part were on their own.

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