3 Nurses to Celebrate During Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, a time where we highlight the contributions of women to society. Comprising the largest health care profession, the vast majority of nurses (93%) are women making it highly appropriate to end Women’s History Month with a look at three nurses of historical note.

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, Oil on Canvas, 1889. Mary Clymer is the nurse pictured right.

Mary Clymer

Mary V. Clymer is best known as the nurse pictured in the famous Thomas Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic. Her notoriety as only one of two females in the painting, the other female is the patient undergoing a mastectomy, makes Clymer a favorite point of analysis for historians of women studies, art, nursing and medicine. Yet, Clymer’s life held significance beyond her presence in The Agnew Clinic. Born in New Jersey, Clymer entered the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Training School for Nurses, one of the early Philadelphia nurse educational programs in 1887. An excellent student, Clymer received the Nightingale Medal for graduating with the highest average in her class. She was also someone who took her new professional responsibilities seriously missing her graduation ceremony in May 1889 to provide nursing care to the victims of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania Flood.

After completing her studies, Clymer worked as a private duty nurse, the most common occupational field for nurses at that time. Comments from physicians and patient families for whom she cared praised Clymer and her nursing skills describing her as “first class,” and “In every way satisfactory and a comfort.” As was typical for the time, Clymer left active practice upon her 1901 marriage but remained very involved in professional and charitable nursing organizations throughout her life.

Mary Clymer is representative of women who entered into turn of the century nurse training seeking out a professional occupation which provided meaningful work and a reliable means of support. As well, her presence in The Agnew Clinic is a statement on the importance of one of essential components necessary to the success of scientific medicine, nursing. The inclusion of a trained nurse in a picture focusing on the promise of modern medical practice highlights the critical need for skilled, educated caregivers of the sick. Dr. Agnew’s patient received expert surgical care under his proficient hands. But it was a nurse who made sure that the patient received the complex after care that would return her to health. – Amanda L. Mahoney


Mercy Hospital Nursing Staff, Ms. Lula Warlick standing, 3rd from right

Mercy Hospital Nursing Staff, Ms. Lula Warlick standing, back row, 3rd from right

Lula Warlick

Lula Gertrude Renwick Warlick, RN was one of many African-American nurses from the Jim Crow-era South who forged their careers in the Midwest and Northeast. A native of Lincolnton, NC, Warlick attended nursing school at the Lincoln Hospital School for Nurses in New York, graduating in 1910. Warlick went on to hold supervisory positions at Provident Hospital in Chicago and Kansas City General Hospital No. 2 in Missouri before she became the superintendent of nurses at Mercy Hospital in 1920.

At Mercy Hospital, Lula Warlick gained a reputation as a stern leader who demanded excellence from both students and staff. For instance, when Ms. Warlick wanted to discipline a student nurse, she would take their cap away in public. The cap was a symbol of professional dignity, therefore its removal constituted a deep humiliation. However, Warlick wasn’t a sadist who derived pleasure from making her charges suffer needlessly, she was a realist who understood what is now known as the ‘black tax,’ which is the notion that African-Americans have to work twice as hard to achieve parity with their white counterparts. In a segregated health care system, the nurses of Mercy Hospital faced a career where most of the doors would be closed. Lula Warlick trained her nurses to be tough enough to break those doors down if necessary.

In addition to being a tough superintendent, Lula Warlick worked hard to innovate and lead Mercy Hospital School of Nursing to excellence and community engagement. For instance, she lectured a course entitled “Ethics, Professional Problems, and Survey of the Nursing Field,” which focused on providing students with practical solutions to professional issues. The school also led initiatives to educate on health and sanitation by holding lectures at area churches. In 1924 Warlick instituted a four month course affiliation in public health nursing where students trained at the Henry Phipps Institute and the Visiting Nurse Society. In addition, Mercy Hospital received endorsement by the Pennsylvania State Board of Examiners for Registration of Nurses, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and the Welfare Federation of Philadelphia.

Warlick retired in 1943 after twenty-three years of service. In a document published by Mercy Hospital entitled “For the Health of the Race,” it is noted that the high standards of the hospital were not only a testament to the city of Philadelphia, but to the work of African-American people across the nation, which speaks to the importance placed on providing health care to the community during this time, as well as the monumental significance of nursing administrators like Lula Warlick, who left a lasting impact on the surviving members of the Alumni Association of Mercy Douglass that is felt to this day.  – Tiffany Hope Collier

Neville Strumpf

Neville Strumpf

Neville E. Strumpf, pioneer in gerontology nursing, professor, researcher, and Interim Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing from 2000-2001, is a living example of a nurse of world renowned reputation who continues to contribute in significant ways to society. Strumpf received a BSN from the State University of New York, a MS from Russell Sage College, and a Ph.D. from New York University in 1982. Strumpf was already an experienced clinician and educator in gerontological nursing prior to joining the faculty of University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing as an assistant professor in 1982. In 1985, Strumpf was named Director of the Gerontology Nurse Practitioner Program where she was responsible for implementing gerontology into the undergraduate curriculum.  At the time gerontology was viewed as a less exciting and relevant field for nurses. But Strumpf recognized the need to prepare nurses and nurse practitioners in elder care particularly in an era when people were living longer and required excellent nursing throughout their lives. Through Strumpf’s strong leadership, Penn Nursing’s gerontological program expanded to include nurse practitioner and research programs. Strumpf focused her advanced research and education into the clinical problems of caring for elders, improving outcomes of their care and creating individualized care for frail adults. Her work in these areas evolved to include studies into restraint-free care, quality of life for older cancer patients, access to services for refugee elders, and prevention of falls.

Working with long-time research partner and fellow Penn Nursing faculty member, Dr. Lois Evans, Strumpf and Evans’ research revolutionized nursing practice in nursing homes by reducing the use of restraints on the elderly by demonstrating that restrains for elderly patients can be safely reduced without an increase in falls, higher staffing or increase in drugs. A second area of Strumpf’s research included interdisciplinary projects to examine at-risk groups of elders living in Philadelphia in a comparative study of refugee caregivers concerning life experiences, health status, and knowledge of available services.  Strumpf’s professional life reflects the potentialities possible through a modern career in nursing. Her influence in creating a more thoughtful, insightful and scholarly approach to elder care has improved the lives of many. And Strumpf, currently Penn Professor emeriti, continues to contribute through a plethora of activities including membership on numerous boards and other organizations. She serves as Chair of the Advisory Board of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.  – Jessica Clark

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