Mary Adelaide Nutting, Rock Star of Nursing

Profiles in Nursing

Mary Adelaide Nutting, Rock Star of Nursing

Called one of the most useful women in the world

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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In 1922, when formidable nurse educator and innovator Mary Nutting received an honorary degree from Yale University, a colleague described her as “one of the most useful women in the world.”

As far as nursing is concerned, those words were hardly an exaggeration. In fact, Nutting’s influence is still felt in the curricula and even the philosophy of modern nursing programs.

Reforming Education

Mary Nutting Nursing StudentBorn in Waterloo, Canada, Nutting was trained in Baltimore and was part of the first graduating class of the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing in 1891. She was the first nurse to register in the state of Maryland and helped to draft that state’s first nursing practice law.

Shortly after graduating, she replaced her friend Isabel Hampton as head of the Johns Hopkins Hospital school. In that role, Nutting took steps to improve conditions for nursing students, who in those days often worked 60 to 100 hours a week in exchange for the instruction they received.

Nutting believed that nursing education should provide both clinical experience and a solid empirical and theoretical foundation. Among her other early achievements were the inauguration of a new three-year nursing curriculum and a six-month pre-clinical program for incoming students.

Under her leadership, Johns Hopkins introduced scholarships for low-income students, hired its first full-time instructors and began paying its lecturers. Nutting also established a professional nursing library that later helped her and Lavinia Dock develop their four-volume History of Nursing. Nutting was also instrumental in the establishment of the American Journal of Nursing in 1900.

Securing Finances

In 1907, Nutting left Johns Hopkins for New York’s Teachers College, Columbia University, where she would remain until her retirement in 1925. When Teachers College established its Department of Nursing and Health in 1910, Nutting became the new department’s head. The programs in hospital administration and public health that she instituted earned her school lasting international recognition.

Striving to put the school on a firm financial footing, independent of hospital interference, Nutting sought endowments and public donations. She declared that the school’s purpose was not simply to train nurses for hospitals or doctors, but to prepare each nurse “for useful service to the people in all matters which affect their health and well being.”

No Cutting Corners

In 1912, Nutting wrote an influential monograph for the U.S. Bureau of Education, entitled “Educational Status of Nursing” in which she described progress and problems in nursing education. Some of the issues she identified still sound very familiar, such as the wide variation in state nursing laws and the challenge nurses face in pursuing postgraduate study while working long hours.

During World War I, Nutting chaired the Committee on Nursing of the Council of National Defense General Medical Board, which was responsible for managing the nation’s nursing resources. Despite wartime demand for nurses, she resisted attempts to cut corners in training and preparation. “Compassion may provide our motive,” she once said, “but knowledge is our only working power.”

At different points, Nutting held leadership positions in the American Nurses Association, the National League for Nursing and the International Council of Nurses. In 1944, the National League for Nursing established the Mary Adelaide Nutting Medal, of which Nutting herself was the first recipient.

She was also among the first to be named to the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame.   

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