The End of the Nursing Education Era

Graduates of Stanford’s program still remember their training—and the sometimes-awful apparel.

September 2023

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The End of the Nursing Education Era

THINKING CAPS: Stanford-trained nurses went on to earn advanced degrees, train health care workers internationally, and serve as faculty at other institutions. Photos clockwise from top: The Western Photo Company/Stanford University Archives; Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service; Jose Mercado/Stanford University Archives

When the school of nursing opened in 1895, country girls were preferred. “They were accustomed to hard work, and they were accustomed to life and death,” says Eleanor Hedenkamp, ’66, historian for Stanford Nurse Alumnae. The first nursing students worked 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. 

At the time, they attended what was known as Lane Hospital Training School for Nursing, a counterpart to Cooper Medical College. The nursing program was founded in San Francisco by physician and surgeon Levi Cooper Lane to supply nurses to the nearby hospital. Stanford acquired both schools in 1912, and they later became Stanford University School of Medicine and its subsidiary, the Stanford University School of Nursing.

To the dismay of its students and faculty, the nursing program closed at the end of the 1973–74 academic year. Still, 50 years later, its devoted alumnae—galvanized by their experience in the once-thriving program—are supporting the next generation of nurses at Stanford Medicine and beyond.

In its first several decades, the nursing school faced a number of challenges. During the Great Depression, a bandage shortage plagued the hospital, so nursing students soaked all bandages and sent them to be sterilized, reusing them for up to a year. During World War II, a nationwide shortage of nurses led the program to double its enrollment.

In 1959, the nursing school moved from San Francisco to Stanford’s campus. By the time Hedenkamp and her classmates attended in the ’60s, the program—not technically a school but rather an academic major leading to a bachelor of nursing degree—had been fully integrated into the university. Students were admitted as regular undergraduates and took general education courses for their first two years. “Everybody I knew was there, first and foremost, to get a good education,” says Patti Fry, ’72, MBA ’77. 

Whether already at Stanford or hoping to transfer in, prospective nursing students applied to the program as sophomores and then spent the next three years partly in a clinical setting. The all-female cohorts were small, with about 20 students per graduating class, and as the women worked together in the hospital, they formed a tight bond. They were united, too, by less profound experiences. Classmates, for example, wore identical uniforms—knee- or ankle-length dresses, with white aprons and starched white collars. “Do you know how they chose that god-awful brown-gray?” says Hedenkamp, whose cohort detested its assigned uniform. “The interior decorator chose the color so it would go well with the walls.”

‘Being there for that family, in their own home, where they’re comfortable—we saw health care from all these different aspects.’

They studied pharmacology, obstetrics, communicable diseases, and psychiatric nursing. It was a patient-centered curriculum, and one course required the students to make multiple home visits both before and after a patient’s treatment. “Man, that has stayed with me,” says Janet Darrow, ’74. When she visited the home of her patient, a child preparing for surgery, the mother was emotionally struggling to cope with the symptoms of her child’s condition. “Being there for that family, in their own home, where they’re comfortable—we saw health care from all these different aspects.”

As they completed their clinical hours, the nursing students gained skills alongside Stanford medical students, interns, and residents, and learned to work as a team. Darrow still remembers being taught to gown and glove up before entering an operating room. The med student next to her was as nervous as she was. “You bond, in a way, and understand each other’s insecurities,” says Darrow. “You see each other as people who care about doing it right and want the best for the patient.”

While Stanford medical trainees worked shoulder to shoulder, there remained deep gender divides in the field nationally. Nancy Clum, ’72, president of Stanford Nurse Alumnae, remembers nurses, most of whom were female, being subservient to doctors, the majority of whom were male. And that wasn’t just when it came to making diagnoses. “In other parts of the country, nurses were still [expected to stand] at the nurses’ station when physicians came into the area,” Clum says. Nursing, as a profession, did not always garner respect. Hedenkamp remembers her high school adviser asking: “Why do you want to be a nurse? You’re smart enough to be a doctor.” Hedenkamp’s response: “I want to treat people, not disease.” Indeed, although nursing was among the few professional careers readily open to women, many alumnae say they pursued it out of passion, not necessity.

After earning their bachelor’s, many continued their nursing education, earning advanced degrees at other institutions. Some returned to Stanford’s hospitals, but others took their training farther afield. Helen Murphy-Robinson, ’72, trained health care workers in Afghanistan and at refugee camps in Thailand. Some alumnae left nursing to raise children, go to medical school, or switch to other fields. Several served as faculty at nursing schools, and Elisabeth Zinser, ’64, became the first female president of the University of Idaho.

In 1970, with a nationwide financial crisis forcing the Medical School to reassess its priorities, Stanford appointed a task force to study nursing education. The task force ultimately recommended that the nursing bachelor’s degree be replaced with a master’s, but in 1974, in the absence of a clear plan for offering a graduate degree, the program closed indefinitely. The Medical School’s then-dean, Clayton Rich, cited a lack of funds as the reason. “I am very anxious to see the nursing school open up again,” Rich said in a Stanford Daily article on May 21, 1974. “On the other hand, I want to see the program have enough resources so we can have a strong program.” 

Over the past five decades, the program’s alumnae have found ways to support current and prospective nurses at their alma mater. Stanford Nurse Alumnae has remained active since the program’s closure, with about 200 current members, the youngest in their 70s. The group holds an annual brunch for undergraduates interested in nursing; funds a Cardinal Quarter, in which students interested in nursing can engage in full-time public service work; funds postdoctoral nursing fellowships at Stanford Hospital; and contributes thousands of dollars to nursing research projects at the Medical School, where there are now eight nurse scientists with PhDs on faculty. “We feel like we’re making progress in that some of these people—the postdocs, etc.—have really demonstrated to the School of Medicine how valuable nurses can be,” Hedenkamp says.

As a clinical nurse specialist at Stanford, Hedenkamp worked with children with heart disease and often treated the same patients for years. In her home today, she keeps reminders of them amid the photos and art hanging on the walls. One, she points out, is an etching of a young heart transplant patient done by the girl’s father, who was an artist. She can rattle off the stories and personalities of past patients as if they were her own children. It was the deep relationship between nurse and patient that originally drew her to the profession. Thanks to those relationships, she loved her career, her education at Stanford, and even her time in those god-awful brown-gray uniforms. “I would do it again,” she says, “in a heartbeat.”

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

Vintage 1973 Collection

Stanford is 50! It turns out we’re not the only one. Walk with us down memory lane as we sample some of the wonders and horrors of the 1973–74 academic year on the Farm, and in the world around.

Start the Presses

Were Golden

89 Rodins Find a New Home

A Godfather Delivers a Ransom Payment

A Splashy Debut

The Winds of Freedom

SLE Club

‘Until the Birds Took Over the Singing’

The Poet and the Coup

Steps Toward Saving Salamanders Are Set in Motion

A Sequel for Supersonic Flight?

The First Stanford Astronaut Returns from Space

The End of the Nursing Education Era

Keepers of the Flame

50 Years After the Stanford Murders, Three of Four Families Have Answers

A Classic Is Released

A Young Lawyer Wins an Educational Equity Case

Joining the Force


The Axe Is Stolen One Last Time

Fit to Be Tried

For Commencement Speaker, a Watergate Special Prosecutor

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