Anne Williamson, author of Fifty Years in Starch

Profiles in Nursing

Anne Williamson, author of Fifty Years in Starch

In for the long haul

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Anne Williamson was a nursing educator, administrator and author. Her career spanned the very earliest days of the profession, which she chronicled in her book, Fifty Years in Starch. One of chapters describes her duties in 1896 when she prepared for her first big case: surgery in a patient's home. The day before, she removed rugs, drapes and wall hangings, then scrubbed floors, walls and windows. During surgery, which took place in the kitchen, she helped administer the anesthetic by pouring chloroform on a cotton wad held in a newspaper cone. Afterwards she remained in the home to nurse the patient to recovery.

In another entry as she described mother and newborn care, she wrote of the voluminous swaddling for the babies that left no room to move, barely any to breathe. Bindings for the mother included the placement 150 safety pins!

Bouquet from Barton

Williamson was born in New York and attended Mount Holyoke College and Wilson College before her father’s death forced her to cut her education short. Another death, that of her fiancé, seemed to help her settle on nursing and she entered New York Hospital School of Nursing. When she graduated in 1896, Clara Barton, whom she had met as a young girl, sent her flowers. For much of her later life, Barton remained Williamson’s role model.

Like many nurses of the time, her career started as a private duty nurse. But with the outbreak of the Spanish American War she soon volunteered for service. This work, in the first contingent of women nurses ever allowed to serve in a U.S. Army camp, helped lay the groundwork for the later establishment of the Army Nurse Corps.

Hospital Duty

After the war and a move to Los Angeles, Williamson decided to switch to hospital nursing, and in 1907 she began what became the longest service on record at California Hospital. Her advancement was rapid and she quickly became director of nurses. Although initially she was against the eight-hour day, at heart she was an advocate for nurses, and she changed the schedules so that staff at the hospital were able to get proper rest, attend additional classes and enjoy some recreation. At one point she even lent money to the hospital for a new nurses’ residence.

When the first aviation show in United States history was held (in 1910 at the Dominguez Field in what is now Carson), it attracted over 200,000 participants. Williamson oversaw the field hospital and received a commendation for her stellar efforts. During World War I she sold war bonds and did nurse recruiting.

Her involvement with nursing organization was extensive and in 1927 she began a 10-year term as an administrator of the California State Nurses’ Association. She was also involved with the Red Cross throughout her career and the American Nurses Association.

The Economics of the Profession

When she looked back, Williamson wrote about the changes she had experienced from the earliest days when nurses worked around the clock right up to the time when nurses finally achieved the eight-hour day, 40-hour week. Here is how she described the transition in her article in the 50th Anniversary issue of the American Journal of Nursing “A Backward Glimpse”

I graduated in 1896. I remember how hard nurses worked at that time. People thought we were superior beings who could go indefinitely, sometimes twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four. . . . When we graduated, $25 a week for a private duty nurse was considered the height of affluence, and for the most part it was an all-night-and-day job. It took the greater part of fifty years to increase it to $11 for an eight hour day. Now nurses can live a normal life like other professional women; most large hospitals have adopted the forty-hour week, salaries have certainly improved, and nurses no longer think it is unethical to consider the financial aspects of their professional work. (Vol. 50, No.10, 1950; pp.637–638.)

As she neared 60, Williamson cut back her nursing duties but she did not leave the hospital. After a short sabbatical she became director of social services and helped with the women’s auxiliary. On her 75th birthday she received a diamond-set award for the longest service ever to California Hospital.


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

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