Margaret Anthony Tracy, Founder of UC School of Nursing

Profiles in Nursing

Margaret Anthony Tracy, Founder of UC School of Nursing

She even wrote the textbook

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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By all accounts, Margaret Anthony Tracy was outspoken, blunt, brilliant and perceptive. It took all those characteristics to establish the first autonomous school of nursing within a state-supported institution, the University of California. This was a remarkable achievement considering that it was at a time when higher education for nurses was not generally seen as necessary and when nursing itself was barely considered a profession.

Career Path

Born in Danville, Ky., Tracy was a schoolteacher before she entered the Army School of Nursing at Walter Reed in 1918. Her first nursing jobs were as a staff nurse and then a supervisor at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service in New York City. By 1925, she had moved to Yale University, supervising surgical nursing at New Haven Hospital.

In 1929, she earned her master of science degree in bacteriology, pathology and public health from Yale. From there, using a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, Tracy visited nursing schools and public health agencies around the world. She later led various institutes for the Rockefeller Found-ation, hosting nursing faculty from many different countries.

A Worthy Part of the UC

In 1934, Tracy was invited to consolidate the individual nursing programs then operated by various entities on the UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco campuses and put an end to the counterproductive rivalry and tension between them. It seems an unlikely assignment for someone who, according to one biographer, did not tolerate opposition or suffer fools gladly, but she did well despite multiple obstacles.

Tracy proposed replacing the existing three-year diploma programs with a five-year baccalaureate program. Her proposal was eventually accepted, leading to the creation in 1939 of the University of California School of Nursing San Francisco and Berkeley. Tracy later became the school’s dean, working tirelessly to make the school worthy of being part of the University of California and encouraging the faculty to achieve full academic status, a process that took many years.

In addition to this demanding task, Tracy wrote extensively, including a 1938 nursing textbook that saw several editions: Nursing: An Art and a Science. Although research was not her primary focus, she valued it highly and spoke often of its importance for schools of nursing. At Yale, she had authored a highly respected monograph on surgical nursing procedures, and as dean of the UC School of Nursing, she participated in several nursing investigations. She also served four years on the editorial board of Nursing Research.

Wartime Service

The welfare of Tracy’s students remained her constant priority. In the aftermath of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Tracy was instrumental in securing transfers and relocations for many students and staff of Japanese descent whose jobs and careers were in jeopardy. One of Tracy’s biographers notes that Tracy’s students were often in awe of her, but never doubted her concern for their welfare.

During the war, Tracy was instrumental in founding the Nurse Cadet Corps, which helped swell the ranks of professional nursing. She also served on the U.S. Public Health Service’s Nursing Educational Advisory Committee.

Lasting Legacy

In a change from decades of practice, Tracy insisted that the patients selected for care by students in her program provide the needed educational experience for the students. Rather than have educational goals of students be secondary, Tracy helped the hospitals develop adequate staff to care for the patients, who were the hospital’s responsibility.

After years of poor health, Tracy died in July 1959, leaving behind a school of nursing that even today is regarded as among the best in the world.  

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