The start date of an institution seems like a clear-cut fact, but often the records that would ideally shine a light on this milestone are actually a bit murky. The founding of the Phillips School of Nursing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel (PSON) is a great example of this historical ambiguity.
During a recent reference request, I had the opportunity to research the establishment of PSON more fully. I spent hours poring over the Beth Israel Board of Directors minutes tracking down this information. Reading through this material was extremely time consuming – the minutes are handwritten in large, loopy cursive, and most entries didn’t even have a passing mention of the school. (When one meeting had discussion about the Hospital purchasing a typewriter, I felt like it wasn’t a moment too soon!)
The earliest mention of nursing at Beth Israel Hospital is in the Board of Directors minutes of April 25, 1891, when a nurse applied for a position at the Hospital as it prepared to move to its new space at 196 East Broadway, and was hired to begin working on May 15 of that year at a salary of $23 per month (about $730 today). These early years at Beth Israel (established 1890) were marked by financial precarity, and it was noted in July 1891 that the Hospital must “limit itself to accepting ten patients for the foreseeable future, these to be serviced by 2 nurses only, one doctor, one cook, and if the Hospital would also reduce other expenditures…the institution would survive.”
In the years following, an added concern was hiring nurses who were trained. As was a common model for the time, Beth Israel Hospital opened its Training School for Nurses to supply the hospital with a fixed number of student nurses, who provided most of the nursing service to inpatients and were supervised by a smaller number of trained, professional nurses. We know that the school first opened at the Jefferson and Cherry Streets location with a two-year curriculum – but when exactly?
The minutes reveal only a rough outline of the founding of the school. The first mention of it was on October 11, 1898, when the idea was referred to the Medical Board in conjunction with the Board of Directors, Training School Committee. The committee consisted of two members, “Hurwitz and Fleck[?].” Two months later, the committee wrote a proposal for the school, and on March 7, 1899, it was officially established.
The school wasn’t mentioned again in the minutes for three full years, and renewed interest coincided with the hospital’s preparation to move to the Jefferson and Cherry Streets location. On March 4, 1902, the committee “was instructed to proceed at once with the necessary arrangements for nursing in the new hospital” in addition to “other work” as assigned. On May 6, 1902, the committee reported that “requests for the recommendation of a Supt. Of Nurses have been sent out and that the German Hospital recommended a Mrs. Chapman[?].” (German Hospital was renamed to Lenox Hill Hospital in 1918.) This superintendent of nurses would have supervised the student nurses during their training.
Finally, the minutes from late 1902 imply that the student nurses had begun their work. On October 7, November 11, and December 9, 1902, the minutes state that the nurses’ quarters were “insufficient”, and it was moved to find a better place to rent for them. The November minutes also reflect some logistical challenges around finding the right number of nurses per ward. There’s no definitive school start date mentioned.
The unprocessed Phillips School of Nursing records also have materials related to the hundredth anniversary of the school taking place in 2004. Did these celebrants have access to historical documentation that is not present in the Archives? It is difficult to say. The celebration, called “A Century of Caring,” honored the ten graduates of the first class in 1904: Rose Bergen, Elizabeth Berman, Fannie Finn, Rose Goldman, Rose Hyman, Julia Meyers, Lena Rabinowitz, Sophie Reichin, Elizabeth Stein, and Minnie Vogel.
By carefully reading the Board of Directors minutes, searching through PSON’s own records, and seeing the institution’s own conception of its anniversary year – all this taken together – we’ve concluded that the Beth Israel Hospital Training School for Nurses was established in 1899, with the first class beginning in 1902 and graduating in 1904. We feel that we can more reliably count on these dates than in the past, and hope that this account supplies helpful context to the archival labor that goes into these historical understandings.
- Beth Israel Hospital records, Board of Directors minutes, 1889-1891
- Beth Israel Hospital records, Board of Directors minutes, 1897-1902
- Phillips School of Nursing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel records, Unprocessed records
Authored by Stefana Breitwieser, Digital Archivist