Profiles in Nursing

Mary Ann Garrigan and Florence Nightingale's Letters

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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The museum equivalent of a scrapbook is called a repository. It is a collection of material on a particular subject that may include everything from original manuscripts to oral histories, photographs and letters. Repositories are treasure troves for researchers, often containing resources that can’t be found anywhere else.

There are repositories for many different subjects, from the Holocaust to early aviation memorabilia, but for a long time, there were no such archives devoted to nursing history.

That changed thanks to the efforts of Mary Ann Leonarda Garrigan, RN, FAAN, whose foresight and dedication ensured the preservation of our profession’s historical records in an era when too few valued that history.

Career Path

Garrigan was born in New York and graduated from the Westchester School of Nursing in Valhalla, N.Y., in 1934. Her first love was maternal child health, which led her to earn a certificate in maternity nursing from the Women’s Hospital of New York in 1936. After a stint at the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service in New York City, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1941. During the war, she spent several years as an instructor in the Army Nurse Corps. In 1946, Garrigan completed her M.A. in education from Boston University, where she subsequently became a professor and later administrator of the baccalaureate nursing program. Boston University would remain her professional home until her retirement in 1981.

Building an Archive

One of the classes Garrigan taught at Boston University was an introductory course in nursing history. That experience led her to become concerned about the preservation of historical materials related to nursing.

During a term as chair of the Historical Resources Committee of the Massachusetts League for Nursing in the mid-60s, she took the first steps to develop a nursing history collection at Boston University, urging Gustave Harper, the director of libraries, to establish an archive of nursing history.

In 1966, the university set up the first official repository of nursing-related papers and materials and named Garrigan its curator. A year later, she obtained a grant of $150,000 from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to ensure that the archive would foster historical research and support the teaching of nursing history.

In 1971, the American Journal of Nursing Company and the American Nurses Association each designated the Boston University archives as their official repository. The archives also established its own publication, The Journal of Nursing History, which paid tribute to Garrigan with a special issue in 1986.

Gems in the Collection
The History of Nursing Archives Garrigan established, housed today in the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, is no longer the only one of its kind, but it remains one of the richest repositories of nursing-related historical materials in the world.

That repository includes gems like 215 letters written by Florence Nightingale herself — an addition that was one of Garrigan’s proudest achievements — and a first edition of Nightingale’s 1859 book, A Contribution to the Sanitary History of the British Army During the Late War with Russia, originally published anonymously. There is also a selection of early nursing textbooks from different nations and a wealth of material on nurses’ contributions to military history, women’s rights and public health.

If you can’t get to Boston to visit the archives, the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center offers rotating online exhibitions that often feature nursing-related subjects such as the use of amputations during the Civil War. You can learn more at the center’s website. .   

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