Nursing history on display at La Salle
On the West Campus of La Salle University, a unique learning environment awaits students of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences.
Professors occupy rooms that formerly housed patients. Spaces once reserved for nurses’ stations are simulation labs and classrooms.
St. Benilde Tower is more than an academic space. The building, originally part of the former Germantown Hospital campus, is also home to the Museum of Nursing History, where students, retired and working nurses, and members of the general public can see artifacts and documents donated from around the world that chronicle the evolution of nursing. (The museum is temporarily unavailable to those outside the University community due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
As they move between classrooms, labs, clinics, and offices, nursing students and researchers can view books, diplomas, uniforms, capes, caps, pins, and various types of medical equipment that nurses have used or worn throughout the years. More than just museum pieces, these items serve to fill in details about nursing history that sometimes get glossed over in textbooks.
“Nursing history tends to be celebratory, like, ‘Look at all the great things nursing has done,’” said Assistant Professor of Nursing Jeanine Uribe, MSN, ’97, Ph.D., who serves on the museum’s board of directors. “We need to celebrate, but we have to look at the good and the bad. We have to look at who was excluded, and who was not examined. We have to examine the harshness of some of what nurses did. The museum can play a role in filling in some of those historical gaps.”
The significance of learning in a former hospital, where pieces of nursing history are on display throughout the building, is not lost on nursing students.
“St. Benilde Tower is full of history and it certainly brings a sense of home, knowing that I’m following in the footsteps of former nurses and health care workers,” said Rachel Long, ’22, a nursing major in the La Salle Honors Program. “The building makes me wonder, ‘If these walls could talk, what would they say?’ And being that it used to be a hospital, that has a lot of benefits for our nursing labs.”
The museum took a circuitous route to La Salle after opening officially for America’s Bicentennial in 1976. It has relocated throughout Philadelphia over the years, moving from the Mütter Museum, to Pennsylvania Hospital, and then to Friends Hospital, before ultimately settling into a home at St. Benilde Tower in 2013.
Museum board president Sandra Davis, Ed.D., credits Zane Wolf, Ph.D., the former dean of La Salle’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, with helping the museum find a permanent home at the University.
“Zane Wolf was always a friend of the museum,” said Davis, who has served as board president since 1999. “We needed to be in a place where our artifacts and texts would be available for our researchers and students, and more open to the general public. Dr. Wolf thought about it and she suggested writing a letter to (former La Salle President) Brother Michael McGinniss, ’70, FSC, Ph.D., about the possibility of moving into St. Benilde Tower, which they were getting together for the nursing and health sciences programs at the time. I wrote the letter and we were invited to move in.”
The artifacts on display at the museum range from the utilitarian, like porcelain bedpans, old glass syringes and sutures, to more decorative pieces such as the 10- and 14-karat gold pins awarded to newly graduated nurses by the faculty of their respective universities, colleges, and schools as they prepare to enter the profession. The pins, from institutions across the United States, have been donated by former nurses or their families, as well as collectors.
These tools of the trade and uniform accessories represent a working side of nursing history, while other artifacts offer perspective on nurses as people. Uribe pointed to a collection the museum received from a nurse who served in the South Pacific during World War II.
“This collection had letters U.S. nurses sent after World War II to nurses in Europe, where things were still in pretty bad shape,” said Uribe, who oversees the museum’s artifact donations. “The nurses would send letters of support and things like stockings, cigarettes, chocolate, and sweaters. I think that collection shows, historically, how nurses help each other.”
Like many aspects of life, the museum has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, shutting down when classes at La Salle moved online midway through the Spring 2020 semester. Since it operates independent of the University as a 501c3 nonprofit, it relies on donations and membership dues.
Davis sees a time in the future when St. Benilde Tower is buzzing with students and visitors again, and with the pandemic that has closed the museum temporarily eventually being featured prominently among its exhibits.
Now is a pivotal time for nursing with COVID-19,” said Davis. “It’s changing now, and it’s very important. It won’t be able to be historically documented for years, but you’ll see it documented in this museum someday.
Uribe also has contemporary history in mind as she envisions the museum’s future. She’d like to find a way to save and document educational materials on nursing from the digital realm like videos and online instruction. Diversity is another aspect of nursing history Uribe said she would like to see properly represented in the museum.
“We would like to reach out to African-American and Hispanic nurses to hear their stories and display their donated items,” said Uribe. “As nurses, they were critical to keeping individuals and communities healthy, and they contributed to nursing education, practice, and research often without acknowledgement or assistance. Nursing history needs to show their contributions and highlight the injustices they experienced at the hands of other nurses and the health care system.”
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