Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Why a cap? The better to remember you, my dear

We have received in today's mail a fantastic new donation of materials collected by nurse Eleanor Donaldson, who served with Grace Phelps and numerous other intrepid souls in the Nurse Corps of the Base Hospital 46, the all-volunteer unit organized at the University of Oregon Medical School during World War I.

More about the Base Hospital in another post: today's focus is on nursing caps. The donor of this collection, Eleanor's grandnephew, has a graduation photo of Eleanor and her classmates at nursing school. But which nursing school?

Were this a question of a medical school, we'd be hard pressed to come up with clues to the institution. But nurses were different, and so were their caps. A small pamphlet titled Why a Cap? : a short history of nursing caps from some schools organized prior to 1891 begins with a somewhat discouraging note:
Why a cap?
For keeping the hair in place? As an identifying mark? Or was it merely to serve some other non-utilitarian purpose? The answer is buried in the deep shadows of the past. No one has ever discovered the true origin of the cap.
I leave it to future scholars to decide whether the answer is, indeed, undiscoverable. Whatever the origin of the cap, it is undeniable that for a period of time, your cap marked you and your alma mater. "By their caps ye shall know them" was the watchword of nursing education in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. By the latter half of the 20th century, caps were rapidly going out of style; these days, new graduates of nursing schools no longer sport distinctive headgear.

But, happily for us, Eleanor Donaldson was of a certain era. And so, we can be reasonably sure that she graduated from the Massachusetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses in the first decade of the 20th century,* as illustrated below in an excerpt from Why a Cap?:

Caps: just one of the reasons we love nurses!

*Update 7/27/2015:
We have just learned from our donor, Greg Donaldson, that Eleanor Donaldson did not, as mentioned above, graduate from Massachusetts General Hospital Training School, but rather from the nurses training school at St. Vincent's Hospital. In the article below (supplied by historian Kimberly Jensen via our donor), Ms. Donaldson is listed in the program's 1902 graduating class:

It just goes to show you, you can't always tell the 20th century nurse from her cap! Subtle differences in cap style, probably apparent to the eyes of perceptive hospital personnel at the time, may sometimes be lost on our contemporary eyes.
- Meg

No comments: