They slept in large rooms, a dozen beds to a row. They hitchhiked so they could stash back their dime bus fares to buy fried bologna sandwiches at a nearby bar they weren’t allowed to enter. They snuck out to date or get their ears pierced, risking suspension or expulsion.
And they worked, long, long days — sometimes 16-hour shifts — at Knoxville General Hospital, caring for the sick, the wounded, the contagious, black and white, poor and prominent alike.
These are the memories of Jo Ella “Jody” Tipton McCall and Mary McCall McNamara, and hundreds of the other nurses who came from rural counties and even other states to attend the Knoxville General Hospital School of Nursing in Old North Knoxville.
McNamara’s daughter, Billie McNamara, is determined that their memories be preserved through a recently launched effort.
McCall and Mary McNamara met and roomed together at the nursing school, which was in a large house adjacent to the hospital on Cleveland Place, near where Knox County Health Department now sits. Mary persuaded Jody to start writing her brother, an enlisted man serving in Korea, and by the time the women were full-fledged nurses, they were sisters-in-law as well.
These days, they’re also president and vice president, respectively, of the nursing school’s alumni association. For decades, the association has had an annual reunion for graduates of the school, their instructors and the doctors and other staff who worked at the hospital, which closed in August 1956 when what is now University of Tennessee Medical Center opened.
As their numbers dwindled, the annual reunion became a luncheon at St. James Episcopal Church. In June, about 45 attended.
It was about a month before the reunion that Mary McNamara had the idea for a program on the nursing school’s history. She assigned her daughter, who has genealogy experience, to pull it together.
“She said, ‘That should be easy; all our material is at UT,’ ” which supposedly took custody of the contents of the nursing school after it closed, Billie McNamara said. But when she called UT, “they didn’t have anything” — no photos, records or uniforms, nor the silver tea set used during the ceremony where nurses received their caps.
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Billie McNamara called the university’s college of nursing and other departments, the hospital, and even Lincoln Memorial University, which was at one time associated with the school, to no avail. What happened to the relics appears a mystery.
So, she thought, “if I could connect with any living people today who had Grandma’s picture album or Aunt Bessie’s scrapbook, that would be where the history is,” she said. She began making contacts and now has “people all over the country looking through and sending me stuff (to copy), with the intention that we’re going to try to recreate the school’s history, one nurse at a time.”
She’s well on her way.
During its history, 1902-1956, the nursing school had 879 graduates. To date, Billie McNamara has researched 604 of them and put their stories on a “virtual museum” website, http://kgh.knoxcotn.org.
She’s heard some “fascinating” stories. There’s public-health nurse Eliza Baker Hix, whose Tennessee hometown of Kyles Ford collected money to buy her shoes so she could come to nursing school. (Her daughter later got a nursing degree, too, then became a pediatrician.) The well-regarded nursing school was free to attend; nursing students “paid” for their education by working long hours in the hospital.
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Cherokee Indian Mary Evelyn Lambert Luff joined the Army Cadet Nursing Corps, as many 1938-1945 graduates did, and married a quadriplegic veteran she met while working at a Veterans Administration hospital. KGHNS graduate Martha Rogers developed a “healing touch therapy” that’s still used today.
Then there’s Billie McNamara’s grandmother, Madeline Boyer McCall, who graduated from the school in 1925 and convinced two daughters to follow in her footsteps.
“The thing that got me smitten with nursing was my mother, I guess, delivered every baby in Smithwood,” an area of North Knoxville near Tazewell Pike, Mary McNamara said. “I can remember seeing her going out the door, always with a pair of scissors.”
Mary McNamara’s twin retired to Florida, and she let her own license lapse after a long career in teaching and geriatric nursing, including a stint as administrator of Serene Manor, the nursing home partly in the former “colored ward” of the segregated Knoxville General.
Knoxville General was segregated its entire history, while its successor, UT Memorial Hospital, never was. The segregated ward was meant to be staffed by black nurses, most of them from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, since the hospital’s own nursing school did not accept black students. But because of the expense and distance, there was a perpetual shortage of black nurses, and Knoxville General Nursing School students often worked in that ward, McCall and McNamara said.
“We didn’t think a thing about it,” Mary McNamara said. “Those patients were so appreciative … and they would just thank us for doing things that I didn’t need to be thanked for. It was just part of my job.”
Nor did they mind working in the “contagion” unit, where McNamara remembers helping with a ground-breaking procedure using ice to stop something known as gas gangrene from taking a woman’s arm.
McNamara and McCall were student nurses at the hospital in the 1950s, during a polio epidemic. McCall recalls having to hand-pump the iron lungs containing polio patients whenever electrical power went out. When Knoxville General patients were moved to UT Memorial, “they sent a caravan of hearses” from local funeral homes to transport them, McNamara said. “They thought they were being taken away to die.”
Like her sister-in-law, McCall had a long career in geriatric nursing, home-health care and teaching, but she’s kept her license current. Both said they wore their starched white nurses’ caps, a badge of honor for Knoxville General nurses, throughout their careers. In fact, Billie McNamara said she’s talked to former nurses who plan to be buried with their caps.
“If any of them were to put on their white cap and their nursing pin and their cape, they’d stand up like Wonder Woman,” Billie McNamara said. “They could be in their 90s, and that could happen. It’s amazing.”
Anyone with stories, pictures or other Knoxville General Hospital Nursing School memorabilia to share can contact Billie McNamara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-898-4940.