An historic marker at The Woodlands Cemetery (40th and Woodland) celebrates achievements of Alice Fisher and S. Lillian Clayton, two prominent historic figures in the field of Nursing, but tucked into a quiet corner nearby (N190-192 on the VA side of the cemetery) is another nursing figure with an SFDS connection and local roots who also deserves some recognition.
A 1978 history of the Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH) School of Nursing describes Mary Alice McLaughlin as “a tall woman, stately and immaculate in uniform…she possessed a combination of dignity, strength of purpose and total professionalism blended with patience, fairness, and compassion.” Today, she should be remembered for her efforts to improve nursing education in a time when few universities were interested, and hospitals – including PGH — operated nursing schools, mostly just to take advantage of the student labor.Dedicated to her vocation, it was said that Mary “never lost interest in her students’ welfare despite the terrible physical ordeals she suffered” in a long, ultimately fatal bout with breast cancer.
Mary received her diploma from Pennsylvania General Hospital in 1930 (the city’s public hospital, once part of Blockley Almshouse, which operated until 1977 on property now shared by HUP, CHOP, and the VA). A firm believer in continuing education for nurses, she became “the first student to register in the newly formed Department of Nursing Education at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in 1940.” For sixteen years, she worked as Assistant Director of Nursing Service at PGH, then Assistant Director in charge of Nursing Education, before becoming Director of the School of Nursing and Nursing Service from 1949 until her death at age 44.
Throughout her professional life, Mary labored to get nursing recognized as a serious career: “It was at her instigation that the first program in Pennsylvania to train Licensed Practical Nurses was begun.” In 1950, she pushed through a rigorous evaluation, so that the PGH School of Nursing achieved full academic accreditation with a curriculum centered around training nurses in effective patient care,teaching disease prevention and health education, and developing students’ “ability to adjust to all nursing situations.” In pediatric wards, student nurses learned ordinary child behavior expectations, as well as how to deal with “blindness and other specialized problems…” (the children’s department at PGH was equipped with top-of-the-line Isolettes – incubators piping pure oxygen to aid premature babies’ breathing. The archdiocesan St. Lucy School for the Blind would be founded across the street from SFDS in 1955 to fill an important need after it was realized that pure oxygen saved babies but had become a prime cause of childhood blindness!). Professional training also opened new horizons: a course on Professional Adjustments, “once intended to teach only professional courtesies,” was “redesigned to help seniors adjust to a career that could take them far away from friends and advisors.”
In addition to improving nursing education, Mary worked to make studying at PGH more attractive: for years, she advocated with the hospital board so that “finally, in 1950, students again received a stipend of $15 monthly from the city – a practice that had been discontinued during the Depression years” and more scholarships were made available. She also “boosted student morale greatly by allowing seniors to go into white shoes and stockings. They must have felt they were almost full-fledged nurses!” and “interns and student nurses all joined in the fun of burning black shoes and stockings, or else draping them in rather surprising places around the hospital grounds, as soon as the intermediate year ended.” Seniors received special curfew privileges. As a sign of changing times, students were also “permitted a moderate amount of makeup and were allowed to wear shorts on the tennis court.”
Sadly, nursed through her last days “by those who loved and respected her.” Mary finally succumbed to her disease. She had attended All Saints Chapel at PGH, (which, incidentally, had its rectory at 3951 Baltimore Ave.), and also St. Francis de Sales with her mother, Mrs. Catherine McLaughlin, who lived at 4619 Chester Ave. She was buried at the Woodlands from St. Francis de Sales in 1954.