KGH Cadet Corps in November 1943.
When East Tennessee’s Knoxville General Hospital School of Nursing closed in 1956, there was concern that much of the history of regional nursing would deteriorate and eventually disappear.
But a joint project of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and East Tennessee State University will offer a place where stories and history can be immortalized.
Through research and news releases from the KGH Alumni Association, examples of the history entrenched in the tales of the hospital include many of the hardships for those involved with nursing during World War II.
“My recently widowed mother had to sell timber from our farm outside Rogersville so I could pay tuition,” recalls Bernice Davis Gibbs, a 1941 graduate who served as an Army nurse in both World War II and Korea. “I couldn’t even afford a 2-cent stamp to send a postcard and let her know I’d gotten to Knoxville on the train OK.”
Stories like Gibbs’ are common, as many of the nurses at the time were from meek beginnings in East Tennessee and neighboring areas, often orphans or from single-parent homes. Many did everything they could just to get to Knoxville to start their programs straight out of high school.
Admission into the program was often an act of charity for those who attended.
Eliza Baker Hix, a 1943 graduate, almost didn’t get to attend training at KGH. Someone gave her enough money to pay for tuition, books and uniforms, but Eliza didn’t have proper shoes. Everyone in her rural Hancock County community donated pennies, nickels and dimes to collect enough for Eliza’s shoes. Eliza eventually completed post-graduate study and became director of public health nursing in Sumner County.
Compiling all the history of those involved started as the project of a Knoxville historian, Billie McNamara, who two years ago began what she called the “little project” to put together the information and present it to the alumni association at a KGH luncheon and saw it later turn into an undertaking that would land all of her hard work in a museum in Johnson City.
Housed at Mountain Home’s Building 34 on the VA campus, where the historic mess hall or clock tower is located, the stories of 900 women will be forever preserved. It will include artifacts and all of McNamara’s collected information.
The work of these nursing school graduates is said to have had a large impact on the health care in the region.
“It has been a privilege to do this research. I have called people in every state — sometimes asking them about people they only know from family legends — trying to find stories, historical documents, and photos we can either get donated or duplicated,” McNamara said.
“We started a website and a Facebook page, and I have spent innumerable hours reading microfilm. We’re making connections and getting the word out.”
It started with her compiling a list of graduates and proceeding to research every one of them. She’s had the help of ETSU assistant professor Dr. Sharon Loury, who was said to have had more information than anyone else about early nurses’ training in the area
Loury said she got a great kick out of helping with the project, especially seeing all the spots where the information she’d find with McNamara overlap with her own work with nursing history in the area.
“It appears everywhere we turn in researching the history of regional health care, KGH nurses are involved somehow. The overlaps seem endless,” Loury said.
Citing the emotional toll put on nurses during World War II, Loury said many of these graduates would have to work together to handle whatever was thrown in their direction. She notes one remarkable example of one of the nurses being held for three years by the Japanese as a prisoner of war on Bataan.
“Resilience and caring, foundational in the nursing profession, are common themes reflected by KGH graduates,” Loury said. “Surviving hardships in training and practice provided these nurses with stamina and the tools to cope with death, disease, wars and losses that might have otherwise overwhelmed them.”
Johnson City, though about 100 miles east of Knoxville, was picked as a spot for a permanent regional nursing museum because it would be a midpoint between many of the areas from where the 900 KGH graduates were coming and would serve the public and students of nursing at neighboring ETSU.
For more information about the new museum, call Martha Whaley at 439-8069.
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