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Presbyterian Student Nurses- A Case Study of a Hospital Training School

We take a closer look at the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses’ student ledgers to highlight the number of students caring for patients, how many contracted influenza, how many were sick from other ailments or were healthy, and how many died.

Nursing was a budding professional field in the early 1900s. It was a career that women, typically middle-class white woman could obtain what was then considered a respectable and professional career. Nursing was segregated by race and gender. Most nurses were white; a small number of African American hospitals trained African American women as nurses for African American individuals and families. An even small number of psychiatric hospitals trained men to work as nurses.

Training schools for nurses were always attached to hospitals. In an apprenticeship that provided hospitals with free labor, student nurses received on the job experience by caring for hospital patients while also attending various lectures on procedures, medications, and nursing care. When influenza spread throughout the country, nursing students were on the frontlines caring for desperately ill patients. These students often fell ill themselves and saw fellow students get sick and even die, from the influenza. Here, we take a closer look at the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses’ student ledgers (a record of student’s ward duties and activities) to highlight the number of students caring for patients in the fall of 1918, how many contracted influenza, how many were sick from other ailments or were healthy, and how many died.

Looking at the student ledgers, between September 22nd and November 1st, approximately one-third of the total number of nursing students present at the hospital were infected with influenza (34). One nurse died from the virus during this period. In addition, just under a third of students were either ill or absent of other reasons during the outbreak (22). Only about a third of the student population remained “healthy” during this time (32). And of those healthy students, a handful of them became seriously ill in January, including one student who passed away.

Students Present September 22nd thru November 1st Students Present September 22nd thru November 1st

Gwenllian Carnes died from influenza on October 4th at 11:39 pm. Another student, Barbara Susan Rohrer, died from pneumonia, contracted during the 3rd wave of influenza, on January 15th 1919 (reflected in these charts as healthy). Both students were part of the Class of 1920.  

Students Ill With Influenza September 22nd thru November 1st
All Students Out September 22nd thru November 1st

These numbers only reflect the student nurses present during the influenza outbreak. Not included in the counts were also head nurses for the various wards, graduate nurses, and volunteer nurses within the hospital assisting with the influenza outbreak. By looking at the student nurses, we can see just how quickly influenza spread throughout an area, how many were infected, and the duration of their illness.Recovering from influenza took time. Students, like all patients, were bedridden for 4 to 23 days. On average, student influenza victims were ill for 12.3 days. The highest number of students out of commission with influenza came on October 7th with 21 ill. That’s over half of all students who would contract the virus and 23.5% of all students present at this time.

Looking at the numbers for students sick or absent from other illnesses or for reasons not attributed to the pandemic at this same time, about two-thirds of the student nurse population was recorded out during these weeks. More absentee leave was taken at the very end of influenza period than during it, perhaps giving students time off to recover from the intense work they performed during the pandemic. If they are included into the healthy population, the numbers of influenza and sick students still outweigh healthy students around the same rate of two-thirds of total student population.

Nursing students were both heroes and martyrs during this epidemic.