Exhibition honors School of Nursing’s first century — and looks forward

An exhibit at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library looks at Yale School of Nursing’s first century across eight themes.
A medical bag for GEPN students.

A medical bag for GEPN students. (Photos by Rob DeSanto)

A campus exhibition recounts many of the notable contributions made by Yale School of Nursing, a school that began a century ago as an experiment to transform nursing education in the United States.

But the exhibit, which is on display at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale School of Medicine, also looks to the future.

Part of our goal with this exhibit is having current students see themselves in the future of YSN,” said Courtney Brombosz, a research and education librarian and a co-curator of the exhibit. “They may recognize some of these names or even notice their own faculty in these cases and realize they’re part of this history, and in 100 years they’ll be a part of the 200th anniversary. History is not in the past; it is constantly being created in every moment here.”

The exhibition, which is part of a year-long celebration of the school’s centennial, recount’s YSN’s story through eight themes and approximately 60 items.

Like any good story, it starts at the beginning. The first display focuses on the early years of the school and how it was introduced to the broader Yale community.

Detail of one of the cases in the exhibition celebrating Yale School of Nursing’s 100th anniversary.
Detail of one of the cases in the exhibition celebrating Yale School of Nursing’s 100th anniversary.

The first case includes a photo of the first graduates of the Yale School of Nursing — the class of 1926 — as well as one of their textbooks, “Text Book of the Principles and Practice of Nursing.” A course catalog for first-year students lays out the required classes, including obstetrics and gynecology, communicable diseases, public health, and psychiatry — a snapshot in time that can be compared with requirements of today’s curriculum, shown in another case.

Other contrasts on display include uniforms worn by the earliest YSN students and those worn by today’s students. Uniforms from a century ago include a white apron overlaying a blue, long-sleeved, high-collared dress with an ascot around the neck. Compare that with the more utilitarian (and comfortable) Yale blue scrubs worn by the class of 2024.

Just look at the layers,” said Melissa Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History and co-curator of the exhibit. “Some of the examples we have of these early uniforms are sweat-stained. And the starching that was done on these — this uniform could stand on its own.”

During its 100 years of history, YSN has introduced some important “firsts” in its field. A display dedicated to just some of them notes Yale’s advanced program in psychiatric nursing, established in 1949, which was the first in the United States to offer a master’s degree in the specialty. Also celebrated are the contributions of Florence Schorske Wald, a YSN alumna, faculty member, and dean known for her efforts to bring the hospice movement to the U.S., and Virginia Henderson, dubbed “the first truly international nurse,” who served as a researcher at YSN for over four decades and wrote nursing textbooks used around the world.

I hope that everyone who visits the exhibit learns something,” said YSN librarian and curator Janene Batten. “Not just about Yale, but about nursing. The centennial provided a wonderful opportunity for us to literally showcase Yale nurses and midwives and how they have always led the way, contributing to the profession’s progress.”

Wald and Henderson are two of the many members of the YSN community who helped establish standards in what has been called the nation’s most trusted profession. Others, who are also recognized in the exhibit, include Donna Diers, who wrote the first textbook on nursing research; Ruth McCorkle, who developed a widely used assessment scale for patient discomfort and ran a clinical trial that revolutionized the field of palliative care; Helen Varney Burst, who has advanced the field of nurse-midwifery; and LaRon Nelson, the current associate dean for global affairs and planetary health at YSN and a leader in research on HIV prevention and care.

The exhibit also explores diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of nursing. A local news article from 1955, with the scandalous headline “Male Nurse Invades Strictly Women’s World,” reports on Gordon Sawatzky, the first man to enroll at YSN. The exhibit also describes contributions from YSN graduates Rhetaugh Dumas, the first Black nurse to become director of the National Institute for Mental Health, and Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash Marilynn Malerba, the first Native American to serve as treasurer of the United States.

A gift from the Connecticut Training School for Nurses to YSN’s first dean, Annie Goodrich.
A gift from the Connecticut Training School for Nurses to YSN’s first dean, Annie Goodrich. As a nursing symbol, lamps reference “the Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale, a founder of modern nursing.

Additional themes center on education and curriculum, community, and the school today, including community-building efforts that have had lasting impact on the Yale campus, in greater New Haven, and around the world. And some of the highlights of YSN as it exists today focus on its move to West Campus, COVID-19 work, and the new online master of science in nursing program.

As YSN celebrates its first century it now looks forward to the start of its second, and the exhibit invites viewers to contemplate the school’s future — and the role they might play in that story.

I hope anyone who comes to the exhibit knows that they’re a part of this, that they are part of this community,” said Grafe. “Nursing is a critical part of the larger medical enterprise here at Yale.”

For Brombosz, she hopes people leave inspired.

When the School of Nursing was founded, women weren’t allowed to attend Yale College. Yet, you have a school that was essentially built by women,” she said. “I hope people take that energy and feel that if there’s something they want, they can do it, and they have people around them on campus that can help propel them forward.”

It’s fitting, Grafe notes, that the exhibit sits below Yale School of Medicine’s “Aperture” display of portraits honoring women faculty in medicine. “So visitors can hopefully find inspiration whether they’re looking down or they’re looking up.”

The Yale School of Nursing Centennial exhibit is on view in the Cushing Rotunda until Jan. 14, 2024.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643