Madison General Hospital School of Nursing – Oral History Project

October 15, 2020

“This project was exciting to me from the moment I heard about it,” says Sophie Clark, a current UW-Madison History student and UW Archives student employee.

Sophie, along with fellow student employees Faith Hoffmeyer and Lea Goldstone, and Troy Reeves, Head of the Oral History Program, have been hard at work interviewing twenty-one nurses and educators from graduating classes of the Madison General Hospital School of Nursing. The resulting oral narratives offer insight into the education, training, and societal experiences of those who attended and worked at the Madison General Hospital School of Nursing between 1947 and 1978.

I really related to a lot of the nurses interviewed,” Sophie shares. “They were living in the dorms, dating, going to the beach, going out for ice cream. They were even taking similar classes to me. This aspect of oral history is so humanizing. I feel like I gained a richer sense of what it really means to be a student in the medical field by hearing the history of it from their perspectives.”

The interviews touch on a wide array of topics, with questions such as “What makes a good nurse?” and “Were there any practices or methods you learned that you think might be considered unusual today?” The participants describe, among other things, how they came to enter the program, their experiences during rotations, and their subsequent career paths. 

“This project offers those interested a glimpse into how Madison General Hospital Nurses were trained, and how they applied that training to their future careers,” Troy says.

The female interviewees also detail gender dynamics and inequalities they encountered.

 “For some, nursing school was one option in a short list of acceptable career paths,” explains Sophie. “Many of the nurses noted that they were really expected to be a teacher, a secretary or a nurse.”

One interviewee remembers wishing to join the UW Marching Band but finding out women were not allowed to. Another shares her recollection of nurses being expected to give up their chair when a male doctor would arrive at the nurses’ station.

Faith was initially nervous to conduct interviews on a subject she was not familiar with and feared frequent use of technical terms. However, those worries soon disappeared.

“Ultimately what defined these nurses’ educations and careers were experiences centered on passion, care, hard work, empathy, patience, and compassion – something we all can understand,” she explains. “I look forward to the public hearing them,” shares Faith. “I know these stories will inspire many.”

These important stories are now preserved for future generations thanks to funding by UnityPoint Health – Meriter Foundation’s archives project.

“First and foremost, projects like these don’t happen without funding and dedicated people. So, all of us involved want to thank Mary Pautz, MGH Class of 1960, for her willingness to work with the interviewers,” says Reeves. The Meriter archive project directly supported the hiring of Sophie, Faith, and Lea, who, as he describes it, really took ownership of the work.

Troy and Faith.