Bertha Wright, Pioneer in California Public Health Nursing

Profiles in Nursing

Bertha Wright, Pioneer in California Public Health Nursing

An eccentric activist who could stop people with her formidable state

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Bertha Wright, RN, was a pioneer in public health nursing in California, a true activist and, by some accounts, a real eccentric. Her drive and spirit drove her to become Alameda County’s first school nurse and first public health nurse and later to help establish Children’s Hospital Oakland.

Don’t Mess with Bertha

One of Wright’s biographers described her as the West Coast’s answer to Lillian Wald and Jane Addams. According to Murray Morgan, author of The Hospital Women Built for Children, Wright could stop people in their tracks with her formidable stare.

Wright studied nursing at California Women’s Hospital and graduated sometime in the late 1890s. She went to work at the hospital as a graduate nurse, but shortly afterwards moved to the Nurse’s Potrero Settlement House in San Francisco. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the settlement house, Wright worked in a temporary “tent city” set up in Golden Gate Park.

Helping Those in Need

The San Francisco earthquake and ensuing fire led to an immediate influx of displaced people into Oakland and Berkeley, almost doubling those cities’ populations in only three days. Wright became home secretary of the Charitable Organization Society, established to confront the problems of illness, disability, poverty and unemployment, which had all been exacerbated by the disaster.

At the time, San Francisco had no public or tax-supported entities to deal with homeless children, public health or child labor. However, thanks to Wright’s influence, the Berkeley Day Hospital and Berkeley Clinic began to provide services to those in need. Wright also oversaw the establishment of the Berkeley Day Nursery, the first publicly subsidized child day care center in California. Wright was a highly successful fundraiser for these organizations, well known for the drama and pathos of her appeals.

In 1909, Wright’s good friend Mabel Weed took over the secretary position at the Charitable Organization Society and Wright returned her focus to nursing, becoming the district nurse. She often used a horse and buggy for home visits.

No Child Refused

As district nurse, Wright became increasingly aware of the need for a hospital to care for infant children. In 1912, she and a group of local women held a planning meeting for such a facility. Within a week, bylaws were written and an all-female board of managers was elected to direct a new Baby Hospital in Oakland. Although fundraising responsibilities for the new hospital were partly delegated to an all-male board of managers, a strong women’s auxiliary began at the same time.

The Baby Hospital opened in 1914 with 38 beds in an old, dilapidated mansion. Surroundings were rough in the beginning: The clinic was in a former donkey stall, while the former harness room was refashioned as a treatment room. According to a fundraising flyer of the time, the entire hospital could be run for only $12,000 a year.

Under Wright’s direction, the Baby Hospital offered a novel prepaid health plan for young children. For the princely sum of $1, families could enroll a child in a plan that provided all necessary care. However, Wright asserted, “No child will be refused care because its parents are unable to pay the dollar.”

Thanks to the new hospital and Wright’s efforts, by 1916 Oakland had one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the entire country. As part of its services, the Baby Hospital’s maternity clinic even offered home deliveries and 10 daily postpartum visits from a registered nurse.

A Remarkable Legacy

Wright continued to direct the clinics and supervise visiting nurses for several years. Starting in 1918, she taught postgraduate nursing students at nearby UC Berkeley and became active in progressive causes, including feminism.

In 1924, Wright moved to Woodside, Calif., and began to work part-time at a local clinic while raising several foster children with Mabel Weed. Wright died in 1971.

The Baby Hospital continued to flourish after Wright’s departure, adding medical education in 1926. Today, the Baby Hospital is known as Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland. It has 91 beds and 88 residents in pediatric care and has trained over 1,000 pediatricians.

Children’s Hospital Oakland is recognized by the Joint Commission as a “top performer” — one of only seven pediatric hospitals in the nation to earn that designation.  

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