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Present at the Start of Modernity

Mary Clymer’s papers let us see her step out of the painting.

Mary V. Clymer earned accidental fame as the iconic nurse in Thomas Eakins’ 1889 painting The Agnew Clinic. But her presence in the operating theater was no accident. Clymer took fastidious ward and lecture notes between 1888 and 1889 while studying at the Training School of Nurses at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Awarded Best Student Nurse, she graduated at the top of her class and assumed her place at the advent of the modern nursing profession.

Clymer’s papers, bound in two small volumes, document the variety of experiences that formed her education— including rotations in hospital wards as well as attendance at formal lectures taught by the medical school faculty. She describes caring for patients with typhoid fever, giving food and medicine to the sick, making dressings, assisting with preparations, helping prepare instruments for operations, bathing patients, and even making them tea.

Now her notes—housed and recently digitized by Penn Nursing’s Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing—offer a first-hand account of the early days of hospital-trained nurses. They depict the rapid advancement of anesthesia and septic techniques in surgical procedures. And they reveal a brilliant, caring nurse gaining her powers.