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Caretakers as Changemakers

By Ondine Jean-Baptiste

Posted on March 23, 2020

Everybody gets sick. For most of us, our health is a deeply personal and even private topic. But sickness and health are also public issues that have long shaped Brooklyn’s economy, its built environment, its laws and institutions, and its diverse communities.

Taking Care of Brooklyn is one of Brooklyn Historical Society’s current exhibitions which explores how centuries of Brooklynites have understood sickness and health. Through the experiences of everyday Brooklynites giving, receiving, demanding, and being denied health care, Taking Care of Brooklyn shows us that sickness is as much a social experience as a biological one.

This section of our Taking Care of Brooklyn exhibition looks at the professionalization of nursing and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to highlight newfound ideas about care, novel work opportunities for women, the obstacles presented for female professionals of color, and the transformation of healthcare in Brooklyn. Portions of this blogpost have been directly excerpted from the exhibition.

Portrait of an unidentified nursing student, 1969; 2014.006; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Everybody gets sick. For most of us, our health is a deeply personal and even private topic. But sickness and health are also public issues that have long shaped Brooklyn’s economy, its built environment, its laws and institutions, and its diverse communities.

Taking Care of Brooklyn is one of Brooklyn Historical Society’s current exhibitions which explores how centuries of Brooklynites have understood sickness and health. Through the experiences of everyday Brooklynites giving, receiving, demanding, and being denied health care, Taking Care of Brooklyn shows us that sickness is as much a social experience as a biological one.

This section of our Taking Care of Brooklyn exhibition looks at the professionalization of nursing and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to highlight newfound ideas about care, novel work opportunities for women, the obstacles presented for female professionals of color, and the transformation of healthcare in Brooklyn. Portions of this blogpost have been directly excerpted from the exhibition.

As medicine as a career field became professionalized, women and people of color were increasingly marginalized as caregivers due to a number of factors. Midwives and folk healers became barred from practicing on patients, and discriminatory medical school and hospital policies also prevented them from participating in the formal workforce. While nursing, obstetrics-gynecology, and social work were fields open to women, their inclusion hinged on gendered ideas about women’s innate caregiving abilities and the specific focus on women and children in these fields. In the long run, women were underrepresented in roles with higher positions of authority or prestige.

Since most women and African-Americans were not allowed to study medicine in the nineteenth century, they often formed their own institutions. With an all-female staff and board that included white and black women, The Memorial Hospital was one such example located in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn in 1881.

Memorial Hospital Tablet, 1898; Brooklyn hospitals and health services organization collection (ARC.141), Brooklyn Historical Society
steward

Susan Smith McKinney Steward, 1921, from T.G. Steward, Fifty Years in the Gospel Ministry; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

One of the hospital’s founders, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, was the first black woman in New York State and third in the nation, to practice medicine. Steward and other Memorial founders challenged gender norms by taking leadership in practices usually reserved for men, including surgery. Dr. Steward was one of the most well-known physicians in Brooklyn in the late 19th century, and an active member of the suffrage and temperance movements.

Another hospital, Long Island College Hospital, opened its school of nursing in 1883. Long Island College Hospital (LICH) School of Nursing trained legions of women for 130 years before closing its doors. As nursing began to be taken seriously as a profession at the turn of the century, LICH started to hand out pins and caps to graduates, indicating their readiness to become licensed and enter the field.

Long Island College Hospital School of Nursing pins, 1900s; 2014.006; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Long Island College Hospital also established the first emergency ambulance service in Brooklyn in 1873.The practice spread to many other local hospitals by the early 20th century, including Williamsburg Hospital pictured below.

Williamsburg Hospital nurses, 1918
Williamsburg Hospital nurses, 1918 Williamsburg Hospital nurses, 1918; V1987.14.1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Later in the 20th century, LICH began a racial nondiscrimination policy in the 1950s, although it took several years before its physical makeup of students reflected the policy put into place and the ethnic diversity of the borough.  LICH also began admitting men that same year, however students remained predominantly female until its closing in 2013.

Group of Long Island Hospital College School of Nursing students, early 1980s; 2014.006; Brooklyn Historical Society.

While the Long Island College Hospital may be closed, the pioneering work of the nurses who trained in its halls lives on in this exhibition and in Brooklyn’s history.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is made possible through generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Pfizer Foundation, Wellcome Trust, JP Morgan Chase & Co., the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and The Brooklyn Hospital Foundation. Related programs are also made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.

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