Peek into West Michigan’s nursing history

In the 1890s, it was the only ‘real job’ for young women.
The 1896 class of graduating nurses from the United Benevolent Association Training School for Nurses, which later became the Blodgett Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

After graduating from nursing school in the 1890s, Lulu L. Cudney worked as a registered nurse in Grand Rapids for more than 60 years. In 1951, she compiled a history of nursing in the community, including stories and photographs about dozens of local women.

Cudney saw incredible changes to medical care and the nursing profession over her career. In 1903, she traveled by train and horse and buggy to assist at a surgery in a farmhouse 10 miles outside of Holland. The surgery was performed in the living room, on a kitchen table. The room was cleaned thoroughly; “woodwork and walls cleaned of any dust, sheets on floor to cover carpet.” The surgery was a success, prolonging the life of the patient by several years.

Lulu L. Cudney in her Army nurse street uniform during World War I. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

Cudney chose nursing because in the 1890s it was the only profession where “a young woman could earn her education and still give service.” Reflecting on her career, she was pleased to see nurses’ wages increased and hours reduced, but expressed concern about medical care becoming too much of a business. She stressed the importance of patient care and said, “There is nothing more rewarding in mind and spirit than the creative job of total nursing — it brings out the best in your character, for it is your attitudes toward people … that spell out the art of nursing. You have a real job.”

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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