Voices From the Past

Eliza Jane Dickey

(Ed. Note—This fictional “first-person” account is based on selected letters of Eliza Dickey located in the papers of former staff historian Dr. William Gerhard. The papers are part of the Cincinnati Children’s Archives in the Mitchell-Nelson History Library. The Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church was the original name of the organization that today is known as Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.)

I have always felt compelled to help wherever I can in easing the plight of the vulnerable and the voiceless, especially children. I suppose that is why I chose to be a nurse and then continue my studies to become the first female physician and superintendent at the Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

I was born on January 5, 1858, in Aurora, Indiana, to Andrew and Jane Quinn Dickey. Shortly afterward, we moved to Cincinnati. My father worked as an engineer on the construction of the Cincinnati Water Works in Eden Park. When the War Between the States broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.

I was too young to understand the strain his absence put on my mother as she cared for us children and waited for news of his well-being. One day his letters stopped coming, and we later learned he had been captured by Union forces and died a prisoner of war. Those were bleak days for our family and for the country. I only have fleeting memories of my father, but sometimes, when I catch a scent of pipe tobacco, it stirs a vague recollection that comforts me.

My childhood was unremarkable by any standard. I went to school and attended church—my faith has been a mainstay throughout my life, especially when my older brother was killed during the Cincinnati Courthouse Riots in 1884. But I had a deep conviction that I was destined for something different, something unconventional.

Growing up, I became increasingly interested in nursing as a vocation, and in 1880, I was able to fulfill my dream of attending the Boston Training School for Nurses—one of the best in the country. It was everything I hoped it would be, and I applied myself diligently to my studies, graduating on December 8, 1882, just one month shy of my 25th birthday.

Most women my age were married and tending to their growing families. Those of us who had not found husbands were labeled “spinsters” and looked upon with some degree of pity. But I did not feel sorry for myself. Rather, I viewed my single state as freedom to pursue what I felt most passionate about—caring for sick children—body and soul.

A Thirst for More

Hospitals, in general, are a dreary place, serving mainly as an asylum for the sickest and the poor. In most places, children are housed on the same wards as adults, exposed to all manner of diseases and exploited by older patients. Those who have means believe it is safer to be cared for at home where you can be assured of not catching anything. But for those without such resources, it is an unconscionable situation.

When I first started, a nurse’s duties ranged from dispensing medicine—whiskey and sugar for a cough; sulfur for eczema and cocaine for nausea and vomiting—to washing windows, sweeping, mopping floors and bringing in scuttles of coal. For that we were paid $30 a month and had one or two evenings off each week.

I wholeheartedly believe in nursing as a profession and that a nurse’s role is every bit as important as that of a physician. I worked hard to prove that point by speaking up where I could and by continuing my education at the Woman’s Medical College of Cincinnati. I graduated on July 2, 1889, along with six other women in my class.

In February 1893, I was hired by the Board of Lady Managers and the Board of Trustees to be the first superintendent at the Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church. It was a vast improvement over other places I had been. The hospital is devoted solely to the care of children, and the new position combined the role of the former house mother and head nurse. I relished the challenge.

One of my first acts as superintendent was to change the reporting structure of the nurses, placing their supervision and training under my direction instead of the physicians’. My goal was to emphasize patient care and improve their training, extending it from two years to three, which in turn, would improve their status. I also introduced financial rewards to encourage them to advance in their studies and keep them on our staff, as well as attract new candidates. I faced some resistance at first, but eventually, I convinced hospital leaders it was the right thing to do.

I also initiated in-service education for the nursing staff and encouraged them to closely monitor patient status and report any changes in condition to the attending physician. I very much wanted to promote the concept that physicians and nurses are a team, and each member contributes valuable knowledge and information on behalf of the patient.

On January 5, 1897, at the age of 39, I officially became a licensed, registered physician as a “Graduate in Medicine to practice Medicine and Surgery in the State of Ohio.” It was a proud moment. I knew I had achieved something that no one could take away from me. That same year, on May 27, I was admitted as a deaconess to the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Southern Ohio—only the third deaconess to be afforded that honor. It felt good to be opening doors to new possibilities, not only for myself but for all women.

I have come to understand that when you elevate one group, whose voice has been suppressed, to a level that is equal to the others, you improve conditions for everyone. And by working together for the sake of our dear patients, we can remove obstacles that once seemed insurmountable.

As I write this, the hospital is thriving, and I am supremely grateful. What we have today could never have been accomplished if it had not been for all the many friends who loved those little ones and were willing to deny themselves many times over to give them health and pleasure. It is impossible to give an accounting of all who have come forth. But without their support, we would not have risen to where we are today.

-- Eliza Jane Dickey, MD Superintendent Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church

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