Called to Heal: The Work of Swedish Immigrant Nurses
Exhibit on view January 5–April 20, 2017
Swedish Women Immigrants
Single Swedish women began immigrating in earnest around the turn of the century. After arriving in the United States, these women most often worked as domestic servants, though some found work in other occupations as well. Women were often limited to work that was considered suitable for females, including caregiving, service, and teaching. Unafraid of new cities or changing jobs, Swedish women often moved to bigger cities for more opportunities. They sought employment that would offer them better pay and more independence than was available to them in their homeland and often worked as dressmakers, seamstresses, factory workers, laundresses, and nurses.
Augustana Synod & Augustana Hospital
Religious institutions began forming benevolent societies to address the humanitarian needs of the sick and poor. The Augustana Synod was no different. In 1880, Rev. O. Olson (later the third president of Augustana College) returned from a trip to Europe convinced that the Swedish Lutheran Church should have a charitable institution. Thus, in 1882, the Deaconess Institution of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was incorporated. Its mission was to aid the “training of well qualified nurses, the establishment and support of hospitals, the care of the aged, the education of the young, and in general the exercise of mercy among the suffering.” Their first order of business was to establish the Augustana Hospital, which opened in 1884 in Rev. Erland Carlsson’s rented house with a capacity of 15 patients.
During the first year, the Hospital treated 35 patients. In 1884, the building suffered a fire, and a new three-story building was completed with a 26 patient capacity. The first floor held a reception room, which doubled as an operating room when needed. A report of the Augustana Hospital board in 1885 reads: “For years we have felt the need of Christian hospitals where especially the poor, homeless and friendless sick could be received and treated not only by skilled physicians for their bodily ailments, but also by the great Physician of our souls, the Savior of mankind.”
Life at Augustana Hospital School of Nursing
In 1880, there were just 15 schools of nursing in the United States. By 1900 there were 432, including Augustana Hospital which opened its school in 1894. Applicants must be unmarried women between the ages of 17 and 35. They must exhibit “dependability, honesty, sincerity, aptitude for learning and ability to communicate effectively.” Students did not pay tuition, but instead received a small stipend to cover their uniform and books.
Nurses studied and worked during long, grueling hours. The nurses worked 12-hour shifts beginning at 7:30 a.m., but were expected to work until their duty was done, often around 9:00 p.m. There was one night nurse who was in charge of all floors and had to run up and down the stairs. This nurse came on at 7:30 p.m. to read the orders, serve patients their nightly hot milk or cocoa, and take temperatures. After a month of night duty, nurses were supposed to have one day off, but were often called back to work around noon. Time off was from 1:00-3:00 p.m. or 3:00-5:00 p.m. daily, Sundays, and another half day. Nurses did not know their time off until that day and could never make plans. “No appointments, no disappointments” said the head nurse.
Nurses used the textbooks Kimber’s Anatomy and Physiology, Dock’s Materia Medica, and Hampton’s Nursing Principles and Practice. The doctors gave lectures on surgery, diseases, obstetrics, pediatrics, physiology, and pharmacology. The head nurse gave lectures in nursing while a dietician taught dietetics and cooking.
Students could specialize in operating room service, obstetrics, hospital management, or laboratory and x-ray work. In 1901, surgical work was rapidly increasing. The surgical nurse worked 12-16 hours daily for a salary of $25 a month. Instruments were sterilized in a fish boiler on a gas plate. Nurses had to scrub the floor and benches after an operating day. Rubber gloves were new and dressings and gauze were washed and resterilized to be used again.
Supplies were scarce and nurses fought for them and hid them for their own use, particularly linens. Laxatives were used freely by the nurses, the “Augustana Cocktail” being the most famous. This consisted of castor oil served in beer foam, so the patients could not see the oil.
Early uniforms were blue and white striped gingham with white apron. Caps could not be washed and new ones needed to be made every two weeks. Nurses were to always wear their uniforms—while tending patients, dining or in class, but they were never to wear their aprons or caps on the street.
The first graduating class of 1896 had eight nurses. By 1908, 28 nurses graduated. Augustana Hospital School of Nursing graduates were in high demand in hospitals, training schools, private homes and as missionaries. During World War I, a large number of alumni served as Red Cross nurses in hospitals in France.
To learn more about Swedish immigrant woman nurses, see the book A History of the Augustana Hospital School of Nursing, 1884-1938 compiled by Amy O. Schjolberg or visit the Swenson Center and request MSS P:344 Euphemia Peterson nursing papers.
“'More Freedom, Better Pay': Single Swedish Immigrant Women in the United States 1880-1920," Joy Kathleen Lintelman, 1991, pg. 145-146
"A History of the Augustana Hospital School of Nursing, 1884-1938," Amy O. Schjolberg, Chicago, The Alumnae Association of the Augustana hospital School of nursing, 1939, pg. 3, 28, 35
"Report for the Year…" Augustana Hospital of the Deaconess Institution of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1885, pg. 5
"Augustana Hospital School of Nursing Affiliated with Augustana College: Announcement, 1957-1958," pg. 15
"Report for the year…" Chicago, Augustana Hospital of the Deaconess Institution of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1899 “
"Augi Log” yearbooks, Augustana Hospital School of Nursing
“Prospectus: School of Nursing,” Chicago, Augustana Hospital, 1910
I/O:23 Augustana Book Concern photographs
MSS P:344 Euphemia Peterson nursing papers
MSS P:6 G.N. Swan papers