A ampule  artifact in a nurse scrapbook
Bernice White preserved emblems of many 'firsts' in her scrapbook, including the first injection she gave. 'I was so jittery I wasted half if it,' she wrote.

Diary entry for Jan. 25, 1934: “I have never been so tired in all my life as I have today—I ache all over and would love to murder all of my patients. Whatta life. To bed at 8:30.”

Bernice Beyer White was brisk and to the point in her diary; she had to be. As a young nurse in training at Knoxville General Hospital in the mid-1930s, she worked all hours and faced fresh curveballs at every shift. Her diary records mishaps and milestones and captures the emotional weather systems of a student nurse, by turns worried, enthusiastic, self-doubting, and determined.

What “firsts” have been meaningful to you as you learned nursing? Send your story, photo, or video clip to nurs-hxc@virginia.edu.

Diary entry for Feb. 21, 1935: “Everything I’ve done today has been wrong and to crown it all I broke three thermometers tonight. Guess I’ll catch hell tomorrow.”

The Bjoring Center recently acquired White’s diary and scrapbook from that period through the generosity of her son, Malcolm Richardson. The material gives immediacy to the student nursing experience at a Southern hospital and the climb to clinical competency on the ward in an era before sim labs, when a nurse's "firsts" took place with real, live patients in hospital settings. In her scrapbook, White preserved relics from many “firsts”: the first patient she bathed, the first hypodermic injection she delivered, the first patient she ever discharged. On one page, she also acknowledged the first patient she lost who died while she was on duty alone, who succumbed to anasarca, a severe and pathological edema, or rampant swelling of subcutaneous tissue.

According to her son, White was keen to become a nurse but her mother opposed it and insisted she go to college instead. White complied at first, in body if not in spirit. Her grades were poor, she gleefully skipped classes and, after four years in college, she was still a sophmore. In 1934, her mother relented and White “won the long battle of attrition,” he said, enrolling in Knoxville General’s three-year nursing program in Tennessee.

Diary entry for March 1, 1935: “Went to work today on ward IV and like it very well so far. I have a patient with arsenical dermititus and I’m scared to death of him. Have to irrigate his eyes and grease at night.”

Bernice White (1912-1991) loved nursing and spoke of it frequently and fondly, her son said. After graduating in 1937, White took a position at Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine, FL, as part of the American Red Cross Nursing Service. With the approach of World War II, she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Later, she was a nurse at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where her husband worked as an engineer. When her mother suffered a debilitating stroke in 1960, she took care of her for nearly 10 years—out of uniform, perhaps, but still nursing.

What “firsts” have been meaningful to you as a nurse, or as a student? What personal moments have you documented in some way—or wish you had? We want to know: Share your story, photo, or video clip.


Today’s #Flashback Friday is brought to you by the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, one of just three nursing history archives in the world.