Elinor Gregg and Public Health Nursing on the Indian Frontier

Profiles in Nursing

Elinor Gregg and Public Health Nursing on the Indian Frontier

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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The Sioux adopted her with the name of “Helper Woman,” and a helper is what Elinor Gregg most wanted to be. Not many can look back on a career that led directly to so many changes in the health of Native Americans and such improvement in the lot of fellow public health nurses.

Elinor Gregg, Native Americans, nurseMs. Gregg came from a family of public servants. Her father was a minister, and her brother Alan, a surgeon, became a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation. When she graduated from the Waltham Training School for Nurses, she first worked as an industrial nurse in a cotton manufacturing plant. Later she studied management at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

During World War I, Ms. Gregg joined the Red Cross and served at the front in France. After the war she continued to travel, speaking on the Chautauqua Circuit (a sort of traveling speakers’ bureau) and sharing her experiences of the war.

Her adventures with the Native Americans began in 1922 when she rejoined the Red Cross and went to work as a public health nurse, first on the Rosebud, then the Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota. These reservations harbored multiple plagues, namely tuberculosis, trachoma and high infant mortality rates. Pine Ridge, home of Wounded Knee, was so bleak that she remained only two months.

But the experience seemed to catalyze Ms. Gregg. She spent the rest of her career working to improve healthcare for Native Americans.

In 1924, she left the Red Cross and became the first supervisor of Public Health Nursing for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At the time, staff turnover approached 100 percent. For the next 12 years, she worked diligently to recruit nurses, build hospitals and introduce health education programs. Nursing on the frontier, far from hospitals and doctors, challenged nurses and encouraged them to practice beyond their usual scope. “Diagnose” and “treat” were their bywords.

By retirement, Ms. Gregg had expanded the service from 15 to 650 nurses “living up to the best in nursing ideals, adapting to the conditions of life with fortitude, energy and character.”

Her responsibilities included the tribal people of Alaska, and in 1935 she made an arduous trip through the state. After the trip she wrote “A Federal Nursing Service above the Arctic Circle,” which appeared in The American Journal of Nursing. In it she championed the unchanging spirit of nursing wherever it resides:

"In a world of snow and ice with fierce intensity of cold…in the appalling winter strain of darkness for twenty hours out of twenty-four, the essential spirit of nursing has made life not only possible but enhanced it, has nurtured the growth and protected the future of these people. Among the Indians and Eskimos of Alaska, nurses are playing a part that you can be proud of. They are bringing more fullness of life through their knowledge. They are conveying this knowledge slowly but surely to a people who have had no leisure from the hard struggle for mere existence..."

Long before nurses studied trans-cultural nursing, Ms. Gregg worked to publicize the plight of Native Americans — including the threats to their way of life. On some matters, her defense led to controversy. She refused to implement a family planning program, arguing that it was contrary to the culture of the Indians. Less controversial were her efforts to preserve native art forms.

In her retirement Ms. Gregg wrote The Indians and the Nurse, in which she emphasized the lifelong pleasure she had enjoyed serving that community. According to Jerome Earley, who wrote the entry for American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary, she ended her book with the words “I was happy and I knew it.”

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

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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