Sister Rebecca Doan


Sister Rebecca Doan

A nurse who changed the profession

By Alison Riggs, RN, MSN, ONC (Photos Courtesy of Mount St. Mary's College. Used With Permission.)
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Sixty years ago at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Calif., a new development in nursing education transpired, and even now the story is not well known. It was then that the first four-year bachelor’s degree nursing program began in Southern California. And while this might not be stunning news today, in 1948 it was a pivotal moment for nurses. And the pioneer who brought that moment to life was Sister Rebecca Doan, CSJ, a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

The Path of Nursing Education

At this point in the mid-20th century, nursing students were educated in hospital schools for three years of study and clinical experience, and then received a diploma at graduation. After World War II, however, more students and graduates were requesting to advance to a Bachelor of Science degree. Nursing educators around the country, along with the National League for Nursing, began to respond to this need by taking a look at the programs that already existed. Most were in their infancy and many complexities surrounded the process, not least of which was how to establish college programs when students were based in hospitals. The programs were increasing but, as usual with nursing, disparate factions were having difficulty coming to a consensus on the best path to take.

A Program Was Needed

Sister Rebecca Doan, Mount St. Mary's College, NursingEnter Sister Rebecca. She did not fit the usual profile of a dynamic, innovative leader; she was a soft spoken and self-effacing woman who adhered to her order’s values of charity and humility. But beneath these characteristics were an imaginative and visionary mind, integrity and determination, which prove very practical for overcoming obstacles and establishing a program that exists to this day.

Sister Rebecca's Background

Born in Kennewick, Wash., in 1910 to Morton and Abigail Doan, Mildred Rebecca Doan originally wanted to be a teacher, but could not afford the college tuition. Instead she opted for the less costly nursing diploma program. In 1932, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet order, and after her novitiate was assigned to St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Ariz., and later to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewiston, Idaho. In 1947, she was sent to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to obtain a master’s degree in education, after which she was assigned to establish the nursing program at Mount St. Mary’s.

Starting a program where there were few standards, where resources for information on baccalaureate programs were scattered in other parts of the country, and networking as we know it was likely minimal, the task of establishing the first bachelor’s degree in nursing in Southern California was a difficult one. The nursing classes were established with liberal arts and an emphasis on science requirements as well as the clinical sites for the students, which the Board of Registered Nursing stipulated.

And the challenges continued. Sister Rebecca also had to find clinical sites in hospitals that already had diploma students of their own, and who would be willing to accommodate more. Eventually she enlisted Queen of Angels hospital, and in the next few years St. Vincent, St. Francis, Childrens and St. John’s hospitals, and several others became clinical sites.

The Early Years

The charter class began in 1948 and consisted of five students and one nun who all graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree. In subsequent years students also achieved a public health certificate. It was an ethnically diverse little group for the time, with an African-American and Japanese-American student among them.

The former, Vivian Burgess, said in 2002 that she found out that, “when Sister Rebecca approached a local hospital about allowing us to do our clinical work there, they rejected our group because I am African-American. She stood up to them with dignity and told them, ‘I’ll just take the program elsewhere,’ and she did.”

By 1957, Sister Rebecca had arranged to have the curriculum changed away from the apprentice model of the hospitals and have campus-based classes with clinical sites being visited on a daily basis as they are today. She was quoted saying, “Get people out of staffing the hospital and educate them.” This was also a major change.

In 1950, the curriculum was submitted to the Board of Nurse Examiners who granted accreditation, and by 1957 the National League for Nursing gave final approval to the program. That accreditation required that the chairperson have a doctorate, so Sister Rebecca obtained a Ph.D. at UCLA to adhere to NLN requirements.

Students' Reflections

When graduates who studied under her leadership are asked for recollections, phrases such as “absolute pioneer” and “woman before her time,” and words such as innovator and mentor are used. She promoted the holistic approach to care by emphasizing spiritual, psychological and physical aspects. Her students received close attention and counseling, and she was aware of each person’s progress, or lack of it.
She was a rather small woman, but as more than one graduate said, “She seemed a lot bigger when I was a student!” Never one to raise her voice, she nevertheless had an imposing manner and, as many relate, could be quite intimidating.

Her standards for the students were high, and one was expected to get satisfactory grades. If not, you could be called in and queried about whether you really wanted to be a nurse! And grades weren’t all that mattered; whether you comported yourself well and in a Christian manner was just as important, and some students were dismissed for what she perceived as personal failings.

College President

In 1958, in addition to her duties in the nursing program, Sister Rebecca was named vice president of Mount St. Mary’s. In 1961, she was voted Superior of the order and president of the college, at which time she gave up the chair of nursing.

Shortly after being named president, the college was met with the disaster of the Bel-Air fire in November 1961. The huge brush fire raged for several days in the Brentwood and Bel-Air areas, and despite the fire departments’ heroics almost 20 percent of the campus burned, but all the students and faculty were evacuated safely.

Sister Rebecca called in the “men” from the Navy and Loyola University to help clean up — which made the women students happy to help with the clean up — and classes were resumed after just one day. In the next several years Sister Rebecca devoted herself to rebuilding the campus and establishing an associate of arts program at the Doheny Campus in Downtown Los Angeles.

The Later Years

Her term as president ended in 1967 and she returned to the nursing department until 1971, at which time she took a sabbatical and then eventually retired. She continued to help with myriad tasks at the college, always remaining active and involved. In the late 1990s Sister Rebecca retired to the Carondelet Center on the campus in Brentwood. By 1999, she had taken ill after a fall, never recovered and died on Nov. 20, “quietly and peacefully,” at the age of 89.

A Legacy Lives On

Today Mount St. Mary’s nursing graduates are highly regarded RNs and much sought after in nursing organizations. The education they receive can be attributed to Sister Rebecca’s pioneering leadership and the faculty that has followed. One of these teachers is Sister Callista Roy, who is a Mount graduate, former chair of the nursing department and author of the Roy Adaptation Model. This theoretical nursing model is a framework for theory, practice and research and is recognized widely today. She credits Sister Rebecca with supporting and encouraging its development and making Mount St. Mary’s the flagship school in its implementation.

As president of the college, Sister Rebecca remarked, “I hope we’ll be imaginative. I hope we won’t do things the way they’ve been done for 50 years just to fit in the structure somewhere. I want us to be fresh and new.”

These same words echo her philosophy for the nursing department. She would be proud that the college is still carrying on the tradition she started. Nursing has had many important and outstanding leaders in its history, and she was surely one of them!

Alison Riggs is a graduate of Mount St. Mary’s nursing program and a faculty member at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif.

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