Column #99 - September 17, 2000


 by Glenn Tunney

         The first two articles of this series have detailed the creation of the Brownsville General Hospital, the hospital's School of Nursing, and the Horner Memorial Nurses Home.  Now it is time to turn this space over to a wonderful group of women who were trained at Brownsville's School of Nursing,  lived in the Horner nurses home and/or worked in the old yellow brick hospital.  They have some fascinating tales to tell of nursing and medicine in the first half of this century.
         Some of these nurses' stories were recorded on audiotape in interviews conducted in 1989 by Hannah Millward Fisher of Corona, Arizona.  Hannah was studying "diploma schools of nursing" (hospital-operated schools) when she conducted the interviews.  We will also hear from former Brownsville General Hospital nurses with whom I have spoken recently.
         One nurse whom Hannah Fisher interviewed was the late Helen Shallenberger of Brownsville, a 1933 graduate of the Brownsville General Hospital School of Nursing.
         "Did you need to have a high school diploma to enter the nursing school in 1929?" Hannah Fisher asked Helen.
         "Yes," confirmed Helen.  "We were the first class that had to have graduated from high school."
         "Do you recall what your nurse's training cost?"
         "For three years, approximately $125," said Helen.  "That paid for your books and room and board.  We were paid $9 a month.  After we graduated, we got $10.  They took care of providing and laundering our uniforms, but we had to purchase the shoes and stockings, things like that."
         That mirrors conditions at the time in schools of nursing at big city hospitals.  The late Mary Snyder McClelland, who lived on High Street in Brownsville, was a 1928 graduate of the West Penn Hospital School of Nursing.   She later served as a nursing supervisor at Brownsville General Hospital, retiring in 1971.
         "We got a stipend of ten dollars per month," Mary said of her nursing school days.  "If you broke a glass, a thermometer, anything, it was taken out of that stipend.  The portion of the stipend that was not forfeited due to breakage each month was given to us."
         "If you ever broke a boat of thermometers," joked Hannah, "your whole stipend would have gone down the drain."
         "A couple of them!" laughed Mary.
         Blanche Porter Pursglove of Pearl Street, Brownsville, graduated from Brownsville's School of Nursing in 1948.  She was later a staff nurse and a head nurse at Brownsville General Hospital.  Blanche explained to Hannah Fisher why her nursing education was practically free.
         "Because of a shortage of nurses during World War II, the U. S. government had created a "Cadet" program to attract women to nursing," Blanche explained.  "All nine of the girls in my class were in the Cadet program.  So really, it didn't cost me anything to go into training, because the government took care of that expense.  Everything was furnished.  The uniforms were laundered by the hospital.  Bed linens were supplied.  Your room, board, and books were supplied.  You just had to provide for your own personal spending money.  It was really a great opportunity."
         After listening to her 1989 interview, I recently asked Blanche, "Were you obligated to join the military when your education was complete?"
         "No, they gave you a choice," Blanche told me.  "You could apply to go to an Indian reservation or a veterans' hospital.   They didn't accept  everybody.  There were just a few in each class  taken to serve that way.  I put in for an Indian reservation, but I didn't get to do it, so I stayed in Brownsville."
         Helen Varnak Kelly, presently of Brownsville, was a Merrittstown resident when she entered Brownsville's School of Nursing in 1935.  She would have started her training a year earlier, but Helen lacked one critical ingredient.
         "I didn't have twenty dollars!" she told me.  "It was still the Depression.  I graduated from Redstone High School in 1934, but because my family could not afford the twenty dollar deposit to enter the School of Nursing, I had to wait a year."
          Helen told me that Brownsville's School of Nursing sent its students to several city hospitals for months of training.
         "We just didn't have enough of certain types of cases at Brownsville hospital to gain the necessary experience," explained Helen.  "So we went to Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh for obstetrics.  Later we went to Allentown for our training in psychiatry and to Philadelphia for pediatrics.   Ida Gibson from Second Street in Brownsville was my roommate at Allentown and Philadelphia."
         As Helen thought about her nurses training, she said to me, "Compared to those days, nursing today is so complicated.  The medicines, the equipment. . ."
         And how did the nurses compensate for the lack of modern medical equipment and medicines?   They administered plenty of the most effective medicine ever known.
         "We cared," Helen told me in a quiet voice.  "We gave lots of TLC."
         Helen Kelly's nursing education in the mid-thirties took her to several city hospitals.  A few years earlier, Helen Shellenberger's had done the same.
         "Did you have a lot of maternity patients when you were a student nurse at Brownsville in the early 1930's?" Hannah Fisher asked Helen Shallenberger.
         "No," she replied.  "That's why we had an affiliation with Elizabeth Steele Magee in Pittsburgh.  And  I went to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh for pediatrics for three months."
         " Did you go anywhere for Psychiatric Care?" asked Hannah.
         "No, they figured I was nuts enough!"  said Helen, and both women erupted in laughter.
         Hannah asked, "Who instructed you during your schooling?  Nurses?"
         "And doctors," said Helen.  "We would take time off during the day while we were on duty in order to go to classes.   Dr. Henry and some other doctors lectured us at night about medicine."
         "And what was your nursing director like?" inquired Hannah.
         Helen paused for an unusually long time, futilely trying to stifle laughter.  Finally she exclaimed, "She was a reject from a mental institution!  She had worked at a mental hospital near Allentown.  She would clomber up the hall in her cap that hung back down over her shoulder.  She didn't clip it, and it would be hanging down her back half the time."  Helen paused again, then her voice took on a serious tone.   "But she made you toe the mark.
         "When we were scheduled for night duty, we couldn't leave the nurses home in the afternoon.  There was a little store at the corner of Fifth and Baltimore, right behind the hospital.  I was so hungry I could have cried, and I wanted to go down to that little store and get something to eat.  I went down there and I got caught.  For six weeks, I wasn't allowed to leave the hospital and nurses' home.  Even when my father came up for me, I couldn't go home.  I was only allowed to leave to go to church on Sunday with my father.  Then he would take me home for dinner, I'd take a nap and he'd take me back at six in the evening to go on night duty, which started at seven.  We worked seven to seven. All through three years of nurses' training, we worked the twelve hour shifts."
         Blanche Pursglove attended the nursing school in the mid-forties.  The workload for student nurses had lightened only slightly by then.
          "After you became a second year student," Blanche said, "You would probably be assigned the 3-to-11 shift.  When you reached your third year, you were put on night shifts also.  On Ward A (UMW) and Ward B (medical/surgical), you might be on your own.  There were usually  20 to 24 patients on that ward, and you were responsible on afternoon and night shifts for all of those patients' care."
         Such responsibility carried with it the need to look and behave like a professional.
         "Was there a dress code at Brownsville General Hospital in the early 1930's?" Hannah Fisher asked Helen Shallenberger.
         "Absolutely," Helen said firmly.  "As part of our uniforms, we wore black hose and black shoes, carefully polished, while we were student nurses."
         "You didn't use nail polish," said Mary McClelland, whose West Penn experience was similar.   "Just your watch was permitted as far as jewelry.  Your hair was up and off the collar."
         And if your hair strayed beyond the bounds of propriety?  Blanche Pursglove remembers a student nurse at Brownsville who learned the hard way.
         "One of our dress code rules was that your hair was not to be on your collar," said Blanche.  "If you wanted to have long hair that was fine, but you wore a hair net and kept your hair off your collar.  The director of nurses had warned one of the girls several times about her hair being on her collar.  The girl ignored it.  One day, right there in Ward B with a lot of patients in it, she asked the girl for her bandage scissors.   She cut her hair up to her collar right there in the middle of the ward."
         Blanche developed a great respect for her director of nursing.
         "Miss Peeler was the Director of Nursing," she said.  "She was one of the best directors of nursing that ever was.  She would not hesitate, if she felt her nurses had a valid question about a doctor's order for a patient's care, to take a matter to the doctor.  She was strict, but she turned out some good nurses.  You know, many Brownsville graduates went on to other hospitals and became head nurses and supervisors."
         Eventually graduation day arrived for each of these young women.  They were capped and pinned as registered nurses.  Next week, we will accompany them as they patrol the wards  of the old Brownsville General Hospital.

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