Anna Kaplan, Founder of a Nursing School in Jerusalem

Profiles in Nursing

Anna Kaplan, Founder of a Nursing School in Jerusalem

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Anna Kaplan was a Polish-born American nurse who worked to establish the nursing profession in Jerusalem following World War I.   Trained as a public health nurse, in 1918 Kaplan joined the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU), organized by the Hadassah Women’s Organization to improve healthcare in Palestine.

Palestine was a former territory of the Ottoman Empire that had fallen under British control toward the end of World War I. With the support of the British government, Zionist groups hoped to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which then had a population of almost 700,000, mostly Muslim Arabs with some smaller Jewish communities.

A Need for Public Health

Medical care in Palestine at that time was limited. Under Ottoman rule, there were licensed physicians and physicians’ aides trained to treat specific disorders, but nursing as a profession did not exist. Diseases like cholera, malaria and dysentery were common and infant and child mortality was extremely high.

The AZMU set up operations at the Meyer Rothschild Hospital in Jerusalem, where Kaplan served as superintendent of nursing and director of a fledgling school of nursing — the first postsecondary vocational program for Jewish women in Palestine. She also supervised several smaller hospitals and outlying clinics.

Under Kaplan’s direction, the AZMU battled disease, established community nursing and school hygiene programs, organized and supplied local midwives, and created Infant Welfare Stations that provided services in three languages to mothers and infant children. Kaplan and another AZMU nurse, Bertha Landesman, also led the creation of health centers similar to the Henry Street Settlement House in New York.

Fighting Disease and Sexism

The nursing school soon left Kaplan with her hands full. She established the school’s regulations, incorporating standards set by the National League for Nursing, and translated material for the first Hebrew-language nursing manual, since the school had no textbooks.

In its first year, the three-year program received 400 applications and ultimately enrolled 35 students. The first cohort was very diverse, including some students born in Palestine and others who were part of the growing wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Although the school’s official language was Hebrew, much of the instruction was in English or Yiddish. The school had a close association with Columbia Teachers College and graduates actually took the New York state licensing exam.

British authorities recognized the new nurses’ credentials, but the school’s students and graduates still had to navigate patriarchal local communities that took a dim view of education for women, much less the idea of women in professional roles. However, many of the alumnae of the school’s first graduating class went on to make great contributions to local healthcare, becoming the backbone of the nursing profession in the region. Between 1921 and 1975, the school awarded 1,400 registered nurse diplomas.

Reducing the Workday

Kaplan returned to the United States in 1928 and became director of nursing at New York’s Beth-Moses Hospital, where she developed innovative staffing policies like a work-sharing plan that reduced most nurses’ workdays to only eight hours.

Although Kaplan often said she wanted to return to Jerusalem, she never did, either before or after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. She remained in New York with occasional working trips to Poland and Russia.

In 1975, 15 years after her death, the nursing school she helped found became affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — something Kaplan unsuccessfully proposed back in 1927. The school still exists today as the Henrietta Szold Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Nursing.

Photo above: The first graduating class of the Hadassah School of Nursing, 1921. Fifty years later, 1,400 RNs had earned diplomas. Anna Kaplan is seated in the front row, far left.  Courtesy of Jewish Womens’ Association.

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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