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Women’s History Month: Women in Health Care

Friday, March 10, 2017

Over the past several decades, the labor force and the levels of education have changed for women. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 65 million women had jobs and 53 percent worked in three industries that employed the most women including education and health services.

Duke University School of Nursing (DUSON) has a rich history in educating women leaders in nursing.

It was in 1931 under the leadership of the School’s first dean Bessie Baker, RN, that the school recruited and selected its first class of students – 24 young women. The young women had one instructor who taught nearly all their courses: Ann Henshaw Gardiner, MS, RN, assistant professor of nursing education. Gardiner educated the students on total nursing care with attention to the emotional needs of patients in an era before the concept was widely accepted.

The School would go on to matriculate nursing leaders of the future. On April 30, 1941, the United States Public Health Service suggested that schools of nursing at Duke and elsewhere increase their enrollment to train more nurses for military, health and civilian service. During World War II, Duke trained cadet nurse corps went abroad to support U.S. and Allied troops.

At the same time, Duke created new opportunities for those who intended to teach the profession. A Division of Nursing Education within the University’s Department of Education was established in 1944 with Helen Nahm, PhD, MS, RN, as the program head. The Division offered advanced programs for qualified graduate nurses to prepare students for teaching and supervisory nursing positions.

The School would continue to push the envelope on pioneering education and social norms. In the fall of 1967, the School of Nursing enrolled its first black student. Donna Allen Harris was offered a full scholarship from Duke and ultimately made the decision to accept the offer. She would later return to the School as a researcher after spending decades as a clinical instructor, public health nurse and school nurse.

Change didn’t stop there. In 1971, under the leadership of Dean Ruby Wilson, EdD, RN, FAAN, the School entered a new era. Duke University eliminated separate admission policies and classes for women, which allowed Duke women to take classes, once reserved for men, to prepare them for business and professional opportunities in an increasingly gender-integrated world.

It was also during this time that Wilma A. Minniear, MSN, RN, a former associate professor for DUSON, became Duke University Hospital’s first executive director of nursing services. During her 14-year tenure, she led the planning of Duke Hospital’s North Division, and established the first quality assurance program in nursing in the U.S.

Integration didn’t just take place in the classroom and hospital settings. The School of Nursing also took part in duke Athletics history when students founded the University’s first women’s field hockey team. Unfortunately, the team lost every game in their first season, but women’s field hockey at Duke was established.

Today, the School of Nursing continues to be a place where we honor pluralism and encourage each other to explore, engage in and embrace one’s uniqueness while we uphold academic excellence, celebrate strategic change, and honor traditions.

While historically, women have been undervalued and unpaid, the School of Nursing is extremely proud of its rich history in embracing inclusion in order to strengthen our communities, pedagogy, research and delivery of a health care system.

Here’s to honoring all women who have successfully challenged the role of women in all areas of life.