Who Was the Woman in White?

Mary V. Clymer: The Woman in White

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Training School for Nurses, Class of 1889

An exceptional, talented nurse, Clymer’s life intersected with many prominent 19th c. Philadelphians, including the painter Thomas Eakins and the celebrated Penn surgeon Dr. D. Hayes Agnew. 

Becoming a Nurse

Pictured here, Mary V. Clymer is wearing the long, white Pictured here, Mary V. Clymer is wearing the long, white nurse's uniform and frilly cap typical at the time. Born in 1861 in rural Mercer County, New Jersey to a Civil War veteran and farmer, Mary V. Clymer did not seem likely to train as a nurse.

While a bright child, when the family moved to Philadelphia in 1870 her days were taken up working at a cotton mill with her siblings, and most young women who trained as nurses had been teachers or clerks, not factory drudges. Clymer’s quick mind must have caught someone’s eye, however, because in 1887 she began classes at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) Training School for Nurses.

“In every way satisfactory and a comfort” (Registrar of Nurses, Volume C, No. 426)

In recognition of her dedication to caring for the sick, Clymer was awarded the the prestigious Nightingale Medal by the HUP Training School in 1889.

When Clymer graduated in 1889, she was already working as a nurse. In fact, she was so busy caring for victims of a flood in Williamsport, PA, that she didn’t get to attend the ceremony. After graduation she worked as a private nurse until 1900 in order to support herself, despite it being considered less distinguished than hospital work. During this period Clymer’s patients, their families, and the doctors she worked with all spoke highly of her, describing her nursing as “first class” and “in every way satisfactory and a comfort”.

Lost to Marriage

After her marriage to George Bains Jr. in 1901, Clymer retired from nursing. This was not unusual. In fact, it was so common that nursing associations at the time published lists of nurses “lost” to marriage along with their chapter minutes. Although retired, Clymer remained committed to the profession. She formed the Alumnae organization of the HUP Training School in 1893, writing the constitution and serving as the treasurer. She also encouraged the school to create a post-graduate nursing course and continued to be active in similar projects until her death in 1942.

More about Mary  V. Clymer

Explore Clymer’s connection with Eakins, read her diaries, and learn about medical training at Penn in the 19th century.

The Agnew clinic

The Agnew Clinic

The Clymer Diaries

Clymer Diary Cover

Clymer at a Glance

  • Born: Yardsville, Mercer Co., N.J. on January 8th, 1861
  • Studied: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Training School for Nurses 1887-1889
  • Awards: Nightingale Medal (Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania) 1889
  • Marriage: George Bishop Bains Jr.,1901
  • Died: September 9th, 1942


College of Physicians of Philadelphia, (1882-1936). College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Directory for Nurses, Register of Nurses. 13 volumes and 2 index volumes. Volume C, No. 426. 

Mary V. Clymer Site Credits

Site Credits

This site acknowledges the intellectual contributions of Amanda L. Mahoney, PhD, RN, and additional contributions from Patricia D’Antonio, PhD, RN, Jessica Clark, and Elisa Stroh at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing. Project guidance and oversight provided by Sara Sieteski, PhD. Site design by Eleanor Tecosky-Feldman, MSLIS.

Comments or questions?

Email the Barbara Bates Center at nhistory@nursing.upenn.edu.