Sadie Heath cabaniss portrait 2
UVA's first nursing school was named for Cabaniss, who laid the foundation for professional nursing in Virginia, which operated between 1928 and 1954, beginning its move toward academic independence.

At the turn of the 20th century, the abundance and quality of nursing programs in the North – which attracted growing numbers of nurses-to-be from the South, who often stayed there to work, and settle – compelled a response. Too, fierce national demand for nurses stemming from the unprecedented growth of newly constructed hospitals across the U.S. – which, between 1910 and 1927, grew by 56 percent, more than doubling the number of patient beds – created an almost unquenchable thirst for both bedside and nurse managers and directors. During this same period, the nation’s nursing students jumped by nearly 140 percent.

The time to grow, and fortify, thought UVA nursing superintendent Josephine McLeod, had hit.

McLeod made the case for expanding nursing’s undergraduate and graduate programs to create an academic, intellectual and physical home for nursing students beyond UVA Hospital, where the training school had, heretofore, kept them closely tethered. The former McLeod did by campaigning for UVA’s first nursing dorm to be built (McKim Hall, which opened in 1931 with 160 rooms over four floors) and its first full-time dedicated nursing professor to be hired (Ruth Beery, who taught basic science and nursing skills in a dedicated nursing classroom and lab).

The second effort – to expand graduate nursing study for future administrators and educators – proved more complex, but not, to McLeod, untenable.


Amount raised by the Graduate Nurse Ass'n of Virginia for "A Chair of Nursing for the South"

She had some help. After a three-year fundraising campaign begun in the mid-1920s, the Graduate Nurses Association of Virginia, led by Agnes Randolph (great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson) had raised $50,000 to create a new nursing program "that would offer a course of instruction similar to that offered by Northern and Western universities."

After some tense discussion about admitting women,  President Alderman determined that the new school would be housed in the Department of Education. The new school – named in honor of Virginia nurse pioneer Sadie Heath Cabaniss – named Louise Oates its inaugural chair in 1928.

The Cabaniss School offered both a BSN and graduate studies for those wishing to become nursing directors and faculty. Nursing courses were offered over three years, and electives were taught in the College of Arts & Sciences. But while Oates possessed strong academic credentials (she’d earned a master’s degree from Columbia), she fell short in attracting larger numbers of nursing students beyond Virginia.

Too, her timing was unlucky. When the Great Depression began in 1929, many lacked the means to enroll in nursing school. In the lead-up to World War II, demand for nurses to serve in the military also stunted the Cabaniss School’s hoped-for growth. Though the post--WWII G.I. Bill boosted enrollment a bit, lackluster numbers by the 1950s led to the program’s closure. Oates retired in 1952, and the final graduates earned their degrees in 1954.

Though ill-timed and, to some, unconvincingly led, the Cabaniss School did what it set out to do. Some 85 graduates earned a bachelor of science in nursing education (BSNEd) during the School’s 20-year existence, while nearly 200 took graduate-level courses. Many Cabaniss School graduates also remained in the South, assuming leadership positions in hospitals, schools, and public health departments.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Cabaniss School spurred important discussions about nurses’ keen intellectual abilities in the classroom and at the bedside, and paved the way for nursing’s rightful place in the academic community at UVA – not just as a training program taught on-the-fly by physicians and others at UVA Hospital. By 1945, UVA President John Lloyd Newcomb appointed a special committee “to study the needs of the Nursing School in relation to a proposed incorporation of the school as part of the University.” But it would be another decade before the next UVA President, Colgate W. Darden, and the Board of Visitors, would approve the establishment of an independent School of Nursing in 1956.

Writes professor emerita Barbara Brodie, “McLeod’s philosophy of nursing and her ability to raise the standards of nursing care and education, and the success of Cabaniss’ students to meet the University’s academic standards challenged the view that professional nursing was solely a womanly vocation devoid of intellectual substance.”



This #FlashbackFriday brought to you by the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, and AAHN President Arlene Keeling. Sourcing for this post includes MR. JEFFERSON’S NURSES, by professor emerita Barbara Brodie (The Rector and Visitors of UVA: 2000).