Nursing profession celebrates a century of service in Washington

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In the 19th century, when modern medicine was in its infancy and the Northwest was still mostly wilderness, nurses were already pioneers here. Graduate nurses from more settled parts of the country came to care for people in need and, in the 1890s, to teach student nurses at Tacoma General and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma. In 1909, when Washington was only a very young state, the Legislature passed a law establishing the Washington State Board of Nurse Examiners, codifying the requirements for professional nurses; it was one of the first states to do so. Today the board that examines and registers nurses is called the Washington State Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission.

"There are a lot of parallels between then and now," noted Maura Egan, UW '84, project director. "There was a shortage of nurses, lots of pressure on hospitals, new technologies that were changing the way medicine was practiced, and the country was at war."

The centennial of this milestone will be celebrated in Tacoma and other parts of the state with a traveling history exhibit put together by the Washington State History Museum, with help from the Washington State Nursing Centennial Consortium. Members of the consortium, including several UW Tacoma students, faculty and graduates, have been working for more than a year to interview and take oral histories of nurses who served in the '40s and '50s and are now elderly. Throughout the state, nurses have told their stories and loaned artifacts to the history exhibit, titled, "Nurses at Your Service: A Century of Caring."

The exhibit includes rare documents, Florence Nightengale's notes on nursing, early 19th century medical equipment and photographs showing how the field has advanced since nurses began being licensed in Washington. Nurses loaned old medical books, vintage uniforms and a classic training film, "Mrs. Reynolds Needs a Nurse."

"The exhibit actually covers 150 years of nursing in Washington state, beginning in the 1850s," Primomo said. "Perhaps because they came so far West in our early history, Washington nurses demonstrated leadership, strength and a high standard for nursing excellence."

The exhibit, now open, runs through July 5 at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Afterwards it will travel to St. Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham, one of the first nursing schools in the state, then to WSU's Spokane campus in the fall.

Kicking off the celebration, UW Tacoma will host a lecture on April 15, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., in William W. Philip Hall, by Marjorie L. DesRosier, Ph.D., RN, who was a history consultant for the exhibit. DesRosier, a University of Washington alumna, will speak on "Perspectives on the History of Nursing in Washington State." The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is funded by Psi Chapter-at-Large, Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and the UW Tacoma Nursing Founders Endowment Fund.

Following DesRosier's lecture, participants will cross the street to the Washington State History Museum for the grand opening of the nursing centennial exhibit. The students modeling vintage nursing uniforms at the grand opening of “Nurses at Your Service: A Century of Caring” on April 15 at the Washington State History Museum will be from Pacific Lutheran College. Students from UW Tacoma will assist with reception. The cost to attend the grand opening is $25. Visit the Washington State History Museum website for more information and to register.

April 13, 2009