SON in the News: Chapel Hill’s First Nightingales

Former nursing classmates, Chapel Hill’s First Nightingales, compiled stories from their college days and medical career milestones into a book, “Ahead of Our Time.”

These women were graduates of the state’s first four-year bachelor of science nursing program at UNC-Chapel Hill. This was the program’s first female freshman class in 1951.

Among the 27 female students were two Morganton High School graduates, Bette Leon Davis and Arlene Morgan Thurstone (class of 1951) and two future brides of Morganton men: Janet Merritt Littlejohn, who married Bill (MHS class of 1950) and Gwenlyn Huss Butler, who married Dean Butler (class of 1953).

As the women individually embarked in nursing field careers, the group of trailblazers reminisced the college days at frequent get-togethers and discussed writing a book about the endeavor, Bette Davis said.

Classmates compiled material for a booklet for the 50-year reunion and for the next five years, gathered information about education, early and latter career and family life for the book, she said.

During the group’s 55th reunion, Davis said, “We became serious regarding actually writing a book.”

As part of an enrichment session during the 60th class reunion weekend in early May, the nurses and fellow classmates launched the book, Davis said.

The purpose of writing the book, Davis said, was to record the history-making class’ memoirs and decision-making process for choosing the program.

“We wanted to let people know how we heard about the school and why we chose it and why we chose nursing,” she said.

Davis said her decision to become a nurse is attributed to her mother, Essie Causby Davis-Lay, a member of the 1922 Grace Hospital School of Nursing class and a registered nurse with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Service in Oklahoma.

Her earliest memories, Davis said include wearing her mom’s nursing cap and playing nurse in doctor-nurse patient games.

Fellow UNC classmate Janet Merritt Littlejohn said the nursing program was a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

“At that time, most of us wanted a college education and to be a registered nurse, this (program) combined the two and prepared you for anything or situation in nursing,” Littlejohn said. “It prepared you for life in general. We were fortunate to have education and people skills — practical nursing.”

Anne Webb, assistant dean at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing urged the classmates to compile their stories into book form and introduced the group to Nancy Lamontagne, the book’s editor.

The BSN Class of 1955 is significant to the University of North Carolina and the profession of nursing in the state in so many ways, Webb said.

“They were the first nursing students in the state to be offered the opportunity to pursue a BSN and they were among the first women to be admitted to UNC as freshmen,” she said. “Just imagine being a young female and hearing of an opportunity to attend a four-year university and become a nurse. In the early 1950s, this was a rare and wonderful thing.”

Webb considers the book by the first year baccalaureate-level educated nurses a resource for current nursing students and fellow nursing alumni, faculty and staff.

“It provides a first–person historical account of the school’s earliest years, along with so much rich material about the last 60 years of the profession,” Webb said. “Improving North Carolina’s public health was a primary goal when the (nursing) school was established, and in that regard very little has changed. Our faculty and students continue to do this through practice, research, teaching and service.”

As a nurse, Littlejohn said caring for patients has changed from a personal, hands-on care to a technical skill level and she encouraged those currently in the nursing field to be observant.

“Listen to the patients and gather all the information you can. So many times a good nurse can pick up information from the patient that the doctor will not hear,” Littlejohn said. “Give each patient all of the attention that you are allowed. Get to know your patients and do all that you can for them.”

Webb said the stories transition from the nursing students’ early college days to their individual accomplishments in the health care field.

“Each class member went on to make a significant impact in health care,” Webb said. “Our earliest graduates were not only leaders in nursing practice, but also in nursing education and services, some in North Carolina and others in areas around the world.”

Davis made an impact in the nursing field on a national level and was one of 150 nurses to attend the presidential briefing for the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform in the White House Rose Garden with President Clinton, May 1993. Also, she served as president of Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs in 1992 and spoke to the senate and house Veteran’s Administration committees.

“Being part of these important events enabled me to contribute to health care on a national level,” Davis said.

As director of alumni activities for the nursing class’ 50 and 55th reunions, Webb said she became familiar with the group of nurses.

“I got to know them well through the years and encouraged them to tell their collective stories. I always loved hearing them and hoped that readers would someday get a chance to enjoy them as well,” Webb said. “You can hear all their voices in the writing. To me, that is what makes this book such a treasure.”

Profits from the sale of the book go to UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing. To order a copy through Amazon, visit . Cost for paperback is $15 and Kindle and eBook is $4.49.

Originally posted by The News Herald. Written by Tracy Farnham, Staff Writer.

For more on the book, please see our original story on the First Nightingales here.