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The Nurse is Here to Help

Jan 3, 2010 5:49 PM | 2 comments

Sister Irene's, registering an arrival, Julius Wilcox, 1892

19th century Brooklyn offered few opportunities for poor, deserted, or unmarried pregnant women.  Many of these expectant mothers would typically find shelter within a local station house and give birth in horrible conditions or would desert their child completely, leaving them to the elements or to the kindness of strangers.  These children were known as foundlings or "almshouse cubs".  The above photo shows two Sisters of Charity, a nurse and an abandoned baby at the New York Foundling Hospital around 1892.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle is full of sad articles about such babies. Concerned doctors and citizens alike saw a need for hospitals for babies and expectant mothers that would also provide training programs for nurses.  One hospital that pioneered these programs was the Brooklyn Maternity Hospital.

Prospect Heights and Brooklyn Maternity Hospital, Annual Reports 1909-1922

The first hospital in New York State to institute the training of nurses was Brooklyn Homeopathic Maternity (originally the Brooklyn Homeopathic Lying-In Hospital).  The hospital changed its name several times to reflect the changing needs of its patients.  The motto, however, did not change and was simple: To aid the friendless; to save the fallen; to lovingly care for the little ones left floating on life's tide, subject to all its tossings and adverse currents; to train women, brave and strong, tender and true, to go into our homes and minister at our bedsides with intelligent care and thoughtfulness;-this is the work of the "Maternity," and this, with God's help, we are trying to do." 

Prospect Heights and Brooklyn Maternity Hospital, Annual Reports 1909-1922

The terms of admission at Brooklyn Maternity stated: "A patient is never refused for lack of money, but her confidence is expected, in order that the truest help may be accorded... In the case of gratuitous care, the patient, when convelescent, is required to render service for three months, as compensation for that care... Our rule is to aid an unmarried woman but once, believing that if we have aided her in the right way she will not require similar service under the same circumstances again."   As an organization that depended on charitable donations and private funds, they administrators felt that they were not only offering material but also spiritual help to a woman in her time of need, and "saving her from pauperism."  The hospital held benefit dinner dances and tea parties in order to purchase supplies and space for necessities like an operating room or more beds for mothers and cribs for babies.  In 1930, the hospital's name changed to Prospect Heights Hospital by which time the maternity hospital had been incorporated into the hospital at large. 

A mother's touch, Brooklyn Eagle, 1954

While designated baby hospitals changed the lives of many Brooklyn residents and saved countless others, the training and dissemination of nurses to homes was becoming a popular idea in the United States.  In 1888, a year in which Brooklyn suffered the ravages of smallpox as well as a major blizzard, hospitals were full of the sick and dying.  Many of the poor of the city perished without care on the streets and in station houses.  Thirteen concerned Brooklynites met at the home of Dr. George R. Fowler, a prominent Brooklyn physician, to discuss their utter shock at the lack of preparedness for outbreaks of disease and ignorance concerning simple hygiene during illness. Dr. Fowler was particularly interested in home care of patients, as he had spent much time in Europe and saw the positive effects of home nurse care. This civic-minded group agreed not only to continue to check in on neighbors and friends, but to go one step further -- to train nurses to visit the homes of the sick and poor.  The Red Cross Society of Brooklyn was formed. 

Imbibing baby lore, Anne M. Goodrich 1952

The early mission of the Red Cross Society of Brooklyn (becoming the Visiting Nurse Association of Brooklyn in 1919) was to focus on maternity and administer care for the sick poor.  Nurses, accompanied by a physician for the first visit, went into the homes of young mothers and mothers-to-be for prenatal instruction.  Six weeks after the baby was born, the nurse would visit again (without the physician--at the time, a revolutionary step).  These visits were usually conducted at no cost to the patient or for a very nominal fee.  Nurses taught new mothers how to provide proper proper hygiene, bathing, medical care, and nutrition for their new baby, and how to care for themselves before and after giving birth. 

A typical visiting nurse, Brooklyn Eagle, 1953

The Visiting Nurse Association of Brooklyn was at first a struggling start-up, relying, like the Brooklyn Maternity Hospital, on charitable donations and bake sales, dances and musical evenings.  Philanthropist Alfred T. White eventually stepped in and paid the salary of one nurse for one year, so long as she visited homes.  In later years, the organization helped with the polio epidemic and offered orthopedic help for the returning wounded from the world wars. 

The annual reports of this and other organizations, as well as photographs, news clippings, and pamphlets located in the Brooklyn Collection, detail the hard work done in this field by countless Brooklyn residents.


1/9/2010 10:46:25 AM #

Nice post! I like the last pic of the nurse in her smart outfit.


1/11/2010 4:46:50 PM #

Thanks Lisa.  The Visiting Nurse Association uniforms were blue.  A very smart outfit indeed.