Florence McClain, Student Nurse Portrait, c. 1929

This is a portrait of Florence McClain as a student nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland.

Florence started “nurse’s training” (as it was called then) in fall 1928 and graduated in spring 1931. Exactly when this portrait was taken during that period is unknown. I’m inclined to think it was closer to the beginning of it than the end.

Being a student nurse at this time was not easy. Between classes and the hours a student was expected to put in at the hospital, the days were long and (often) the nights longer. I don’t know how true this was of Good Samaritan specifically, but a cynical view of nurse education at this time was that hospitals viewed student nurses primarily as free (or nearly free) labor, with any obligation to educate seen as secondary.

And if you weren’t in class or working at the hospital, you were living in a dormitory. According to the 1930 census, Florence was living in a dormitory with 92 other student nurses, plus a house mother and one registered nurse (whose function in relation to the student nurses, if any, is unknown to me).

But it wasn’t drudgery every minute. I remember Mom (Florence) mentioning going to church, to concerts, to the theater and to ball games, at least. During Mom’s last year as a student nurse, her brother Bernard was also in Portland going to business school and they would do things together when they could.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Mom gained some life-long friends during these years—two in particular: Dorothy Holmes (later Weeks) and Shirley Briggs (later Elliott).

8 thoughts on “Florence McClain, Student Nurse Portrait, c. 1929”

  1. We had no idea of the courage that it took for Mom to accomplish this! Cheers for Mom!!

    1. Off the top of my head, I do not remember. I’ll try to track that down for you. Or perhaps someone else who does know will reply.

  2. I don’t know for sure, but I think I remember hearing that you had to have been in training for awhile to earn your cap. If that is true, this picture had to be taken at least a little way into her training. I think there was even a capping ceremony or something?

    1. Good memory, Dorothy!

      I don’t know why I didn’t look this up before. Mom wrote:

      My mother loved nursing. She had worked at the old Saint Mary’s in Albany. I suppose it was partly because of her love and talk of nursing that I decided to go to nurses training. I got the necessary papers to fill out from my principal and sent them off and was glad to be accepted into the Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland. So, after high school, I lived in Portland for three years. We got our board and room, and had classes on our hours off from working in the hospital. We were called probationees for three months after which time, if our work was satisfactory, we got caps to wear and were given more duties to do.

      So I imagine this portrait was taken when she got her cap. Depending on exactly how the three months of probation were counted, that was maybe January 1929.

      Different topic, but even the way Mom worded her comment above tends to support the idea that Job One for a student nurse was working in the hospital. Education was something you got when you had “hours off” from working. I don’t mean to imply criticism in making this observation (though some cynics might). It was the nature of nursing education at the time. It was believed that experience gained by working in a hospital was the best way to train a nurse—that “book learning” was of much less importance. But Mom got plenty of the latter as well. I have some of her nursing textbooks, and they contain plenty of technical medical information (for that day).

  3. Not a matter of huge import, but just for completeness: A closer look at the census data reveals that the registered nurse who was living in the dorm with the student nurses was an instructor. She was 28, so not a lot older than the students. The student nurses were not necessarily fresh out of high school. They ranged in age from 18 to 26, with one even being 39. (These would have been a mix of students in their first, second or third years. Mom was at the tail end of her second year when the census was taken in April 1930.)

    The other interesting thing the census data reveals is that the student nurses weren’t all from Oregon or even from the Northwest, based on place of birth. (I realize place of birth doesn’t necessarily equate to where their families were living when they moved to Portland for nurse’s training, but still…) Of the 93 student nurses in the dormitory, 33 were born in Oregon and 13 in Washington. But a total of 24 states and three foreign countries are represented in the birthplaces of the student nurses.

  4. So glad you remembered the info about capping, Dorothy!!! And thank you, Lloyd, for all the additional information. It is all very enjoyable!

  5. From what I understand, my father Bernard (or Uncle Barney) went to Behnke-Walker Business College and took a secretarial/clerical class for the year 1930-1931. He showed us the building where the college was – somewhere in downtown Portland. He was one of four students from “the country” and a Baptist home. One of those became a life-long friend!

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