In Her Words

“Twenty-Five Years” by Eugenia Klinefelter

Eugenia Klinefelter, one of the 37 graduates of the Washington University School of Nursing in 1920, spoke at the June 5, 1945 Alumnae-Senior Banquet of the Washington University School of Nursing. In this speech, Klinefelter reflects back on her experiences in nursing school.

JUNE 5, 1945

by Eugenia Klinefelter

Twenty-five years about this time, there was just such a banquet as this. The class of 1920 was graduating. The Alumnae-Senior banquet was the occasion. The first World War was over and our guest speaker was Major Julia Stimson, head of the Army Nurse Corps and former Superintendent of Nurses in our training school, also Chief Nurse of the famed Unit 21 which had gone overseas early in the war #1 from Washington University. I had been selected from our class to welcome her – and I was scared to death. Tonight I am in much the same spot – and scared to death. It is different to come back home to make a talk.

Twenty-five years ago, I would never have dreamed that tonight I would be here. Even if the thought had passed through my mind, I probably would have thought that in twenty-five years I never could have made it. Too old by then to even totter here, much less to make a talk after I had arrived!

Twenty-five years! How long is that? Only a short time to the class of 1920. The years have flown by. At times I can hardly believe that it is true that a quarter of a century has passed since we graduated. It seems eons to you, class of 1945.

When I received Miss Knapp’s letter, asking me to talk tonight to this group, I felt both humble and proud. Humble to stand here before you – proud that I had been asked to do so.

I thought to myself, “What shall I talk about?” “It has been twenty-five years since we graduated.” Those words kept ringing in my ears until I said that is my subject, the title of my speech (since it seems that one must have a title for a speech). And so, here it is – “Twenty-Five Years!”

This really is not a speech. I am only going to talk to you. We do not want to learn one thing tonight. I only want to reminisce a bit over twenty-five years. Or rather of twenty-five years ago. Let us go back twenty-five years to our graduation, and then back three years more to that day when we came in training in September 1917. What were we like? Who were we? I was a country girl. Miss Knapp was a city girl, with the other thirty-seven or so in our group much like us. We were young; but we did not know it! We were much like you who are here in this class of 1945. Some tall, some short, some plump, some thin, just a group of young girls.

Let me tell you how we lived. This mammoth place which is Washington University Training School for Nurses today was much smaller in 1917. The main hospital building was five, three-storied wings with Private Pavilion, much as it is today. The Dispensary was there, but not the two large hospitals on the corner. There were two small houses there which were used as the colored ward. Children’s Hospital has changed too, and so has the nurses’ home.

The Nurses’ Home! Do you realize that the tiny “eye brow” on the northwest corner of the present home was the nurses’ home in 1917. The “probies” lived in the service building until enough Seniors moved out of the home. Happy was the day when we moved into what we then considered the palatial nurses’ home. We loved it. We danced in what is now your library, and with the interns too. We had fun in our day and good times, much as you have today.

Let us start a day in training back in 1917-1920. At six o’clock in the morning, the watchman took the elevator to the top floor of the nurses’ home – the “eye brow” I told you of. Down he came clanging a big brass dinner bell at each floor. The rising bell. I do not know what gets you up in the morning, but I am sure that the same kind of moans and groans fill the air when you are awakened. But up we got to rush around and dress and eat breakfast so that we could be on duty on time, at seven.

Today the matter of dressing is a quick one for girls. Shoes, hose, step in, slip, uniform, and you are ready for apron and bib. Dressed!! and in minutes. Here is what we put on in 1917; one gauze or silk undervest or shirt. One corset, and I mean corset. It laced up the back and hooked down the front, and as Grace Rodgers wailed one morning when she was late on duty, “It takes time to get into that picket fence that I wear.” Then came the drawers (not the step-ins of today). Stockings came next. In the light of today’s sheer hose, they can be called nothing else but stockings. Then the shoes. There has been little change there, low heeled and sensible, they were built for comfort and speed.

Believe it or not, over all of this we next put on a corset cover, buttoned down the front. Then came two petticoats. A few of us had what were known in those days as “princess slips,” but mostly for duty we wore the petticoat, at least a yard or two around and gathered into a band. We normally put on two of these in order “not to be seen thru,” a social error of great magnitude in 1917. By the way, these petticoats had ruffles on them of embroidery or lace.

Now we are ready for the uniform, blue striped when we came in, as wartime much as today, prevented the manufacture of the green check. Over this we put our apron and bib with the stiff clerical collar and we were dressed. We did it in five minutes, too, but we were practically slight of hand artists to do it. Let me tell you about that apron. It was cute and we loved it. Three yards of muslin gathered evenly into a two-inch band. We looked like Dutch dolls, as those aprons were good and stiff.

We were rascals too. One blistering hot summer day, Ruth Priest and I left off our corsets and petticoats. But not for many days: we were afraid of being caught.

Do you laugh a lot? We did. We would get in each other’s rooms when off duty and relate things that had happened on duty and simply howl. It is a grand custom, and helpless laughter is one of the best ways to relax tired nerves and release wire-tight tension that I know of.

Here is one story that we never tired of relating. You know the seriousness of the crime of eating on duty and of sitting on the diet kitchen table. One Sunday morning, Joe [Josephine] Daniels was doing both of those things on 1418 [a ward at Barnes Hospital]. It was the custom of Dr. Burlingham, our very handsome and reserved Superintendent of the hospital, to make rounds on Sunday morning. Joe heard the door from the hall open and she called out to Lillian Reid, “Oh, Lill, has Dr. Burlingham made rounds yet?” and he said, “I am here now.” Joe beat Dr. Burlingham to the Training School office to report on herself.

Do you sleep in double decker beds? Well, we did, and protested mightily when they were first put in, but actually there were not at all bad and answered a housing problem of the day. Tita Furness occupied the top deck and Dorothy Wright the lower in their room. One night, Dorothy wanted to tell Tita something, and so, in order to attract her attention, she used the simple process of raising her foot in a good strong kick against the upper springs and mattress. It was a much stronger kick than Dorothy had planned and out bounced Tita and down onto the floor. They were two frightened girls, but no harm was done. The last time Dorothy and I visited Tita, several years ago, here long-suffering husband said, “You girls,” (he still calls us girls) “can talk about anything you want, but I refuse to hear again about the time that Dorothy kicked Tita out of the top of the double decker bed.”

I shall never forget the first night that I was on night duty. I was what we then called “a wop” on OB. A wop did all of the rushing around for the Senior who was in charge on that busy division. I was serious about my job. I felt the whole weight of that ward full of women and babies on my shoulders. About ten o’clock, a premature baby was born. So tiny, so blue, so weak. We had his little bed next to the desk in the ward as we couldn’t leave him for a minute. He was trying his best to choke to death, it seemed to me.

When things had quieted down about midnight, the senior nurse told me to get ready to go to supper. The rest is what she told me several years later. She said that I did a few things then came over to the desk and said, “I am going to supper now,” and added sternly, “you watch that baby.” And I marched off.

Can you imagine a mere probationer telling a Senior what to do? She said at first she was furious, and then she began to laugh to herself until she cried. The nerve of a probie wop!!

Then the hair. You don’t know a thing about hair. Today, ninety-nine out of one hundred women have hair short enough to manage easily. In 1917 and 1920, hair was a woman’s crowning glory, and the longer it was, the more glorified was she. The combing, the braiding, the hairpins, the rats, the combs, were our constant chore.

In our practical procedure class right after we came in training, I was the bed patient and Margaret Block practiced hair washing on me. I had long hair to my waist and it was heavy. Margaret finally got a whole pitcher of liquid soap into my hair and couldn’t get one speck of it out. Much to the disgust of Irba Dillman, our instructor. I finally had to get out of the bed and go to a hopper where Margaret and I washed and washed to get all of that mess of soap out of my hair.

I forgot to tell you in our dressing for the day that we all had long heavy hair to comb and do up in the intricate fashion of the time.

Do you love to scrub for an operation? Many of us did and the operating room was a long-looked for and fine experience in our training. Is Dr. [Ernest] Sachs still here? Once in 1918, I scrubbed for him. It was an accident that I did so. He had his own efficient Miss Sutherland. We all had a wholesome awe of Dr. Sachs.

One morning we came on duty in O.R. to be greeted with the news that Miss Sutherland was sick. Miss Naylor, our supervisor said calmly, “Miss Klinefelter will scrub for Dr. Sachs. A head case is coming in.”

Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “I won’t do it.” It was mine! I had dared to say that. She said, “You will, and you get started.” When Dr. Sachs arrived, he saw me and said at the top of his voice, “Where is Miss Sutherland?” He never knew how my knees shook, nor how frightened I was behind that mask. It was, however, a privilege to be one of the operating team for so fine a surgeon, and I was glad for the experience that day and for those which followed.

I do not know who your night supervisor is, but we had Naomi Skoberg. Much that I know of supervision, I picked up in my early days in watching her work. She knew how to delegate responsibility. She knew every post-operative case, every critically ill patient, all high temperatures were here concern. She left the rest to you. You were responsible for your ward or floor. When you needed her, she was there.

And what about night duty? Ours was twelve hours: from seven P.M. to seven A.M. and we worked all of that time too. Our wards were heavy and one winter we battled through the awful flu epidemic that is still regarded by medical authorities as the worst in our time.

And now, how far have we come in twenty-five years? Very, very far scientifically. There are medical terms, the names of medicines, and of procedures that are glibly on your lips today that we did not even know in 1920.

But there are two words which we did know and which you know today and which all of us here must never forget. One word is patient, and the other word is nursing. The two go together. If it were not for the patient, there would be no need for us as nurses. Nursing is our business. Our profession. And we can be proud that we are nurses. I am and I know that you are.

I once heard a beautiful prayer for nurses. It went like this. “Heavenly Father, grant unto all nurses deeper reverence for the mystery of pain. Give them great sympathy for all suffering – skill in relieving it – gentleness in ministering to it – patience in healing it – courage to overcome it. Grant them strength in all their difficulties. Guard their lips from indiscretion and irritation – their hands from harshness and negligence – their hearts from indifference.

May they bring comfort to the suffering – rest to the disquieted – peace to the dying. Inspire them with zeal for the lowliest task. Remember all nurses whose strength has failed or who have been stricken in service; grant them good health again and speedy restoration to their career or usefulness. Amen.”

And now, class of 1945, what are you going to do? What are you going to be? Probably much what we of the class of 1920 have done and have become. Some of you will keep along the professional way. One of you sitting here tonight may have Miss Knapp’s place here as Director in 1970. One of you may “totter” back here from the Red Cross staff in Washington as I have done to talk to the class of 1970.

Some of you will be homemakers and mothers – blessed estate. In any event, you will take your flight down through the next twenty-five years much as we the class of 1920. And at the end of that time, you will be just as astonished as Miss Knapp and I, and all of our other dear classmates who are here this evening, that twenty-five years have really gone by.

And now class of 1945, who are you? Why, you are the blessed. You have youth and you have the future. You are basically prepared in one of the very finest professions. A new era is opening up before you. Enormous strides in medicine, in surgery, in nursing skills will take place and you will have a hand in the making. The future is before you. It is yours.

Usually speeches (if this is one) close with a message. I do not believe that you need one. You have youth and the future – a glorious combination. It is up to you what you do with it. Never in the history of mankind has there been more to do. You, the youth of today, are our hope of tomorrow. Down the long line of twenty-five years, we the class of 1920, throw the torch to you, the class of 1945. Be yours to hold it high.