Column #97 - September 3, 2000




by Glenn Tunney



        Helen pulled on the heavy rubber gloves and reached toward a rack loaded with dozens of identical white enameled bedpans.   Selecting one of them, the teenage girl placed it into the hot soapy water in the basin in front of her.  The soap was so strong that the fumes rising from the sink caused her to turn away and sneeze.   A spasm of coughing immediately followed.  Eyes watering a bit, she turned back to her work.  She vigorously scoured the bedpan she had selected, then  rinsed it well and placed it back on the rack. As she took another of the white bedpans from the rack and lowered it into the soapy solution, she speculated that it would take most of the morning to wash every bedpan from Ward C of the Brownsville General Hospital.
        That would be followed by a short break.  Then she would tackle a stack of tin drinking cups that she had collected from the bedside stand of each patient on the ward.  She would take them into the little diet kitchen on the Ward C floor, where there was a single jet burner.  She would clean each with boiling water, then soak it in bicarbonate of soda.  She would scour the inside of the spout with a special brush, then rinse it.  When all of them were clean, she would deliver them back to the patients.
        It was Helen's first day as a student nurse at the large yellow brick hospital on the corner of Church Street and Fifth Avenue in Brownsville.  This was not quite the scene she had envisioned in her mind's eye when dreaming of her first day as a student nurse.  Nevertheless, as Helen Shallenberger of Brownsville scrubbed bedpan after bedpan, she knew that her labors over the next three years of training would earn for her the coveted hat and pin awarded to all who graduated as registered nurses from Brownsville General Hospital's School of Nursing.
        Helen went on to have a long and successful nursing career.  Sixty years after spending that autumn day in 1929 scouring Ward C's bedpans,  Helen sat down with Hannah Millward Fisher, a former nurse and now a medical librarian at the Arizona Health Sciences Library.  The pair spent an hour discussing those early years at the Brownsville General Hospital and its associated school of nursing.  Within the past year Helen has passed away, but her audio-taped conversation with Hannah recorded eleven years ago provides a fascinating look at nursing practices and training methods used seventy years ago.
        Today we begin a series of articles about the old Brownsville General Hospital and its school of nursing.  It is a story found in the microfilm archives of newspaper articles from the early part of the century, yellowing programs from nursing school graduations, old photographs and picture postcards, and most important, Hannah Millward Fisher's priceless collection of interviews with several graduates of the Brownsville General Hospital School of Nursing.
        At the beginning of this century, there was no hospital in Brownsville.  "Persons injured in accidents and badly in need of medical aid," wrote a Brownsville Telegraph reporter at that time, "are shipped to either McKeesport or Fairmont, and many cases die while waiting at the railroad station in Brownsville or en route to the hospital because of the lack of medical attention."
        The early twentieth century in this coal mining region witnessed plenty of mine injuries and accidents.  In 1908, the Rev. E. M. Bowman and a group of local citizens and medical professionals began a drive to address the pressing need for a hospital at Brownsville.  In 1910 the group secured a charter for a new hospital.
         "The hospital," the new charter proclaimed, "is to care for those injured in accidents in the coal mines, coke ovens, railroads, and other industrial enterprises, regardless of race, sect or creed."
        The citizens now had a charter, but they did not have the money to build a hospital.  A fund-raising campaign brought in about $10,000.  A location was chosen for the new hospital at the corner of Church Street and Fifth Avenue.  It had recently been the site of the Brownsville public school, which was closed in 1910 and torn down.  Students were now attending the new public school building on Front Street.  The hospital association purchased the vacant property at Church and Fifth and continued the fund-raising efforts.
        Several government appropriations were secured, and a second fund drive managed to raise $32,000.  Combined with the previously raised capital, it was still not enough money to build an entire hospital.  But it was enough to get started, so a contract for building the hospital was awarded to the Charleroi Lumber Company with the provision that construction was to continue as long as the money lasted.  When the money ran out, only part of the hospital had been  built.
        According to the Brownsville Telegraph, the institution was formally thrown open to public use in July 1914,  and it "had patients from day one."  Two years later in 1916, an additional campaign realized the huge sum of $120,000, and the building was completed and a surgical ward added.
        Members of the first board of directors of the hospital association were Charles L. Snowdon, L. A. Lenhart, the Rev. E. M. Bowman, George Thompson, S. Taylor, Dr. W. M. Lilley, Dr. Cyrus C. Reichard, Dr. Lewis N. Reichard, Dr. C. L. Smith, Mr. Obey, Mrs. S. E. Taylor, Mrs T. D. Hann, Mrs. T. H. Thompson, Mrs. Katherine Graham, and Mrs. McBurney.
        In 1919, the physicians were dropped from the board.  In 1923, another fund-raising campaign netted $100,000.  Included among the donations was a $20,000 gift from the H. C. Frick Coke company, $5,000 from the W. J. Rainey company, $3,000 from the Hillman Coal company and other coal companies in the vicinity.
        When Helen Shallenberger entered the hospital's newly built school of nursing in the autumn of 1929, fifty to sixty persons were employed in the big hospital across Fifth Avenue.
        "The hospital is able to comfortably care for 100 patients," explained a July 1, 1929 Brownsville Telegraph article, "although at times there have been more than 125 patients in the institution.  Members of the hospital board say it will soon be necessary to add more rooms to the hospital.  The addition would probably be erected on the ground where the old nurses home is now standing [since a new nurses home was about to open on the opposite side of Fifth Avenue]."
        In her 1989 interview with the late Helen Shallenberger, Hannah Millward Fisher asked her about the hospital's capacity.
        "We had Ward A, which was the Mine Ward," Helen explained.   "We had Ward B, which was men;  Ward C, which was women;   a Convalescent Ward, a maternity section, and we had private rooms and semi-private rooms."
        Each department and ward had a supervisor.  It is interesting to read the names of the personnel who held leadership positions at Brownsville General Hospital in 1929.  They included Mrs. L. S. Knutz, executive superintendent; Miss Anna K. Martin, director of nurses; Mrs. E. Edwards Sonnie, night superintendent of the hospital; Miss Fannie Davis, operating supervisor; Miss Elizabeth Todd, supervisor of Ward A; Miss Mary Rhodes, supervisor of Ward B; Miss Pauline Boring, supervisor of Ward C; Miss Anna Kelley, superintendent of dressings.  Paul Wyatt was in charge of the X-Ray room; he was assisted by Miss Frances Edwards.  Miss Irene Eckberg, dietician; Miss Margaret Young, anesthetist; Miss Charlene Smith and Miss Anna Melkrautz, special nurses for the H. C. Frick Coke company, Mrs. Katherine Wright and Miss Dora Williams, secretary and bookkeepers, and Miss Janet Labin, clerk.
        "What about the medical practices in the 1930's?" asked Hannah.
        "Back in those days," said Helen Shallenberger, "there were seldom IV's, and no transfusions.  You just died if you were that sick."
        By the time Blanche Porter Pursglove of Brownsville graduated from Brownsville's school of nursing in 1948, methods of treatment had changed but the size of the hospital had not.
        "What was the capacity of the hospital by the late 1940's?" Hannah asked Blanche, with whom she also conducted an interview in 1989.
        "About a hundred then," Blanche replied.  "A lot of obstetrics.  That was the baby boom era after the war."
        "Did you ever have patients in the halls because you were overwhelmed with patients?" asked Hannah.
        "Oh yes, we did."
        "There was no recovery room after surgery, is that correct?"
        "That's right," said Blanche.   "We ‘reacted' the patients in their rooms when they were brought back from surgery.   If oxygen was needed, an oxygen tank was brought in.  They didn't have the tanks in the wall.  You had a box of tissues, an emesis basin, a blood pressure cuff, and two tongue blades taped together!  And you stayed with that patient until they responded.  There was no intensive care unit."
        "In that time," speculated Hannah, "the doctors at Brownsville General Hospital were probably mainly general practitioners.  Was there a board certified surgeon on the staff?"
        "Dr. Sphar was the surgeon for the miners," said Blanche.  "I would say that he probably was a certified surgeon.  But the rest were general practitioners.  Some specialized more in surgery, but if a medical patient came in, they didn't say ‘I can't take care of you.'  They took care of all of the patients.  Dr. Huston, Dr. Klimoski, Dr. Ralph Garofalo, they took care of all of their patients.  There were no real specialists.  Your family doctor took care of you or you were sent to Pittsburgh."
        Helen Shallenberger (Class of ‘32) and Blanche Pursglove (Class of ‘48) were both graduates of Brownsville General Hospital's ‘diploma school' of nursing.  Next week, we will look at life as a student nurse at the Horner Memorial Nurses Home in Brownsville.

Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at [email protected] or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442.  For past articles on the Web, go to and click on "Communities."