History and Nursing History at Penn in the 1980s

By Rogers, Naomi | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

History and Nursing History at Penn in the 1980s


Rogers, Naomi, Nursing History Review


Looking back at my time at Penn, I realize how young I was. I arrived as a graduate student in September 1980 eager to become part of a wider and deeper intellectual community than I had known as an undergraduate in Melbourne, Australia, and determined to study the history of this new coun- try which I saw as more exciting than either Australian or British history. I was welcomed into a caring community of fellow graduate students both in the History department and in the department of the History and Sociology of Science.1

Penn History graduate students had a single required course in their first year: History 700, which my advisor Charles Rosenberg was teaching that year. Around the table were a range of students: some like me fresh out of college; some who had sampled the paid workforce and felt that a history PhD would give them a perspective they could not otherwise find; and a few "odd balls" who were (in my eyes) older and out of place. One of these was Barbara Bates. She was tall, a little ungainly, with short gray hair, soft spoken, and to my surprise Rosenberg treated her with great respect. Only gradually did I learn that she had written a clinical best seller, had been a teacher of nursing and medical students for some years, had helped to design a com- munity health program at the University of Rochester-that she was, in fact, far more senior in a wider academic world than any of the rest of us.2 Also around the table was Ellen Baer, a nurse practitioner who had just joined Penn's nursing school.3

What I did not realize about Barbara until sometime later was that she was a physician. To me she looked like a nurse. It was only when I met Joan Lynaugh that I realized I had no idea what a "nurse" really was. Joan was a fireball. She looked like Sancho to Barbaras Don Quixote and in some ways I think she was often the realist, turning Barbaras tilting at windmills into a pragmatic agenda. But in other ways they were both dreamers. They had come to Penn as a way of making a mark on the world of health care and health training where they hoped their long-standing commitment to social justice and professional equity would find academic respect.4 Both were very private people-it was a long time before I was invited to their main line home.

Barbara was interested in the history of tuberculosis; a topic that seemed to me in the early 1980s rather old fashioned (again, let me remind you how young I was). It was true that an interest in infectious disease was on the rise-fueled by AIDS-but Barbara wanted to look at an earlier era where patients spoke a language of healing and therapy that was not very different from their physicians and nurses, and where families desperately sought to return their loved members to health but yet hold onto a fragile financial stability threatened by the loss of wages occasioned by a stay in a sanatorium. Barbara published her dissertation as a book in 1992, the same year I pub- lished mine, which was another study of disease (an epidemic of polio framed by the early AIDS years). Both of us sought out the voices of patients, families, and ordinary health practitioners but Barbara, I think, achieved that far more successfully than I did. In her work you hear the agony of the sufferers and see tuberculosis as a disease with both clinical and emotional sides.5

Just as I was finishing graduate school, Joan, Barbara, and Ellen founded the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at Penn. The Center took the whole of the early and mid-1980s to come together. Nursing history was then not part of "serious" history; it had long been celebratory, somewhat hagiographie. It is a sign of tremendous change that Julie Fairman, the current Bates Center director, has the title "Nightingale Professor" and the name does not have any of these connotations.

Only a few historians outside the nursing profession were studying nurses: Susan Reverby, Barbara Melosh, and Darlene Clark Hine. …

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