by Shannon Butler

If you wanted to learn how to become a nurse in Poughkeepsie at the turn of the last century, you’d have had a few places to choose from. But before we look at those places, it should be said to anyone who decides to take on such a calling, good for you! It is no easy task to care for the sick, the dying, or the extremely accident-prone. Being a nurse is not just a job, and it’s not just for anyone. One needs to be quick-thinking, have a strong stomach, and have the patience to deal with other human beings, often during their worst moments. Florence Nightingale said, “Nursing is an art – and if it is to be made an art, requires as exclusive a devotion, as hard a preparation as any painter’s work, for what is the training to do with dead canvas or cold marble, compared with having to do with the living body.”

The first of Poughkeepsie’s nursing schools came out of the need to help nurses better understand the mentally ill. The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane (they would later drop the “insane” part) opened its doors in 1871 and accepted its first seven patients. It would quickly fill up with people suffering from a variety of forms and degrees of mental illness. In the 1884 annual report of the hospital, a table shows what doctors believed were the causes for insanity at the time, which could be anything from a head injury, to lack of sleep (that makes sense), to political or religious excitement (I can see that), to fever! Understanding mental health was still in its early stages, and constantly changing, so it was determined that a nursing school was essential.

The idea for a school at the HRSH began in 1886, with one-year courses designed to teach the most recent understandings of mental health to already trained nurses. By the 1890s, the full nursing school was well underway and would have successful graduates every year from 1896 until the last class in 1977. Beginning in 1905, the school was registered with the State Department of Education, and graduates earned the title of Registered Nurse. During the course of the school’s history, over 1,000 nurses completed their training.

Vassar Brothers hospital was the next to create a school for nursing in the area when, in 1890, their first two nurses were trained. From there, the hospital dedicated a few buildings on the campus to educating and housing the student nurses. Requirements were strict: you had to be between the ages of 18-35, you had to produce a certificate of “good moral character” from your clergyman, as well as a clean record of health from your physician. Single girls were preferred, but if you happened to be married, your husband was required to sign off and agree to the terms of your training. The hours for on duty were long, 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM, with a half an hour given for each meal break. You were allowed one afternoon off each week and part of Sunday. However, since you were working while studying, there were no tuition fees, and you lived on the hospital property. After a course of three years, a student would then need to pass the Regents examinations in order to be certified as a Registered Nurse. Over the course of the school’s existence, hundreds of women from all over North America would graduate as nurses. It came to a close in 1972.

During World War I, both the Vassar and the HRSH nursing schools would join in with Vassar College’s Nursing Camp to help prepare young nurses to deal with the wounded soldiers who were coming home from serving overseas. In June of 1918, over 400 recent graduates from nursing schools all over the country landed on the Vassar College campus to prepare themselves for a mix of troubling war wounds. General medical and surgical techniques were studied at Vassar Hospital, while shell shock and mental health issues were studied at HRSH. Many of the graduates of this camp would go on to become successful nurses and a few even went on to become doctors.

St. Francis Hospital was formed in 1913, when the Catholic Church saw a need for more medical options with the area’s growing population. Local Catholic leaders and doctors asked the Sisters of St. Francis to help in the creation of not just the hospital, but the nursing school that formed along with it (the school opened up within a year or so of the hospital). This was a three-year course for women ages 17 ½ to 30 years old, and there was a tuition fee of about $735 (recorded as the cost to attend in the 1960s) and you must be a high school graduate to apply. Like the other nursing schools in the area, this one closed down by the 1970s. These days, your best option for taking nursing classes can be found at Dutchess County Community College (which was itself a hospital before becoming a school).

Hudson River State Hospital Nurses’ Alumni, Commemorative Book, 1886-1977 LH 362.11 H
Hudson River State Hospital Annual Report, 1884 362.11 H
Vassar Brothers Nursing School LH 362.11 V
Hillcrest : St. Francis Hospital, School of Nursing yearbook / St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing 362.11 S

01 – Nurses Hall at the Hudson River State Hospital, 1900 – LH Collections
02 – The Hudson River State Hospital float with nurses in a WWI parade, Main St. 1918 – LH Collections
03 – Vassar Brothers Hospital, 1890 – LH Collections
04 – Early postcard of St. Francis Hospital, 1917 – LH Collections
05 – St. Francis Nursing School Staff, 1941 – LH Collections
06 – Vassar Brothers Nursing School, class of 1952 – LH Collections