Researching Nursing History

Researching Nursing History

As National Nurses Week 2023 begins its celebration of nurses around the world, nurses everywhere will look forward to the future of nursing while also honoring nursing history and all the nurses who came before them.

For some nurses, digging deep into nursing history is a way to learn more and to document the important pieces of a nursing past that could be lost with time. Ashley Graham-Perel, EdD, RN, NPD-BC, MEDSURG-BC, CNE, assistant professor of nursing at the Columbia University School of Nursing and a member of American Association for the History of Nursing (AAHN) is also a nurse researcher who has found this work both personally rewarding and professionally satisfying.

Nurses in the AAHN are committed to a diverse range of topics that piece together the broad, remarkable, and often unrecognized work of nurses in history. Dr. Graham-Perel shared her nursing research experience with Minority Nurse and encourages other nurses to follow those questions they have about the nurses who paved the way.

Can you please tell me about your research and how you became interested in pursuing it? 

My research focuses on the lack of racial diversity in nursing education and its direct impact on our diverse patient population. I realized there was a lack of racial diversity throughout my nursing education journey, this includes my associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and ultimately, doctoral degrees in nursing. I recognized that I was searching for someone who I could identify with (someone who looked like me and shared my culture) in all of those programs, it was a consistent challenge to do so. In my doctoral degree, I wanted to dig deeper into why this was a problem. Honestly, I was committed to making this research a quantitative venture, however, I realized there were more questions than answers–and that led me to historical research.

I was incredibly fortunate to meet Dr. Sandra (Sandy) Lewenson at Teachers College Columbia University, who introduced our doctoral cohort to historical research. Dr. Lewenson made me realize my love for nursing history and served as my dissertation chair. For my dissertation, I wanted to uncover why there was a lack of racial diversity in nursing education and practice. When did this start? What caused this deficiency and what can be done to correct it? The questions went on and on.

I “peeled the layers back” far enough to discover the first school of nursing established in NYC to educate Black women in nursing, that is, the Lincoln School for Nurses (LSN) of the Bronx, N.Y., 1898 to 1961. Now, out of all my years of schooling and years being an RN, I have never heard of this school. I was ashamed and frustrated at this fact. I conducted a historical investigation on the school, the graduates, and their impact on the health of Black patients.

My research continues as I conduct oral histories of living graduates of LSN. The Lincoln School for Nurses has a beautiful and enriched history that should be acknowledged and celebrated. It is my honor to share it as a nurse historian.

What is most rewarding about researching the history of nursing? 

What is most rewarding about researching the history of nursing is filling in the blanks. I had so many questions (I honestly still do), but when you uncover an answer or a link to an answer, it is extremely fulfilling. I get to teach others about historical truths that were hidden from us or simply not included in nursing history.

How did the AAHN help your nursing history work? 

When I joined AAHN, it was like finally finding my niche! They were helpful in guiding me with the principles of nursing history and how to efficiently conduct historical research. For example, I served as a co-investigator on the oral history of Dr. Bernardine Mays Lacey, conducted by Dr. Lewenson. We did receive AAHN funding for the oral history (which was published in AJN August 2020) and the film that was subsequently produced.

Lastly, AAHN mentorship is a definite asset of being a member. History is special; finding others who are just as passionate and excited about nursing history and are willing to mentor scholars in the arts of history is one of the greatest gifts of the AAHN.

How will your historical research efforts help broaden and enrich the nursing communities you are in? 

My historical research broadens and enriches nursing academia by highlighting historical discriminatory practices that led to the deficiencies in the racial diversity of nursing. Investigating the lack of diversity in nursing education presented truths about how this impacts the recruitment, retention, and ultimate success rates of diverse nursing students.

My continued goal with historical research is to present discriminatory practices, or remnants of such practices, that are still present in our nursing profession and corrective recommendations for our future generations of nurses.

What would you want other nurses to know about this kind of work and why you might encourage them to pursue their own research projects into the history of nursing? 

It is essential for all nurses to know that in order to achieve a professional identity, one must know their history. One of Marcus Garvey’s famous quotes relates to this sentiment. He stated, “A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture, is like a tree without roots.”

Nursing history is essential to understanding our profession, how we became to be, and how our past influences what lies ahead. I encourage nurses to include history in their research (no matter what type of research you are conducting), for there is not one facet of research that is not impacted by nursing history. Lastly, I encourage my peers to remember that if you have more questions than answers, history is the route to take!


Trailblazers in Nursing History: Chinese-American Nurse Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN (Part Two)

Trailblazers in Nursing History: Chinese-American Nurse Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN (Part Two)

Part Two: Nursing in War-Torn China

(To read Part One, click here)

At the beginning of the war, rural China had very few hospitals, medical supplies, equipment or trained personnel. Malnutrition, lack of basic sanitation, overwork and disease were commonplace, making the provision of health care very challenging.  Rural people usually relied on traditional Chinese medicine and practitioners. The Chinese Army Medical Corps was unprepared to care for hundreds of thousands of ill and injured soldiers, much less help a large civilian population.  Some Western-trained Chinese physicians, along with European and North American doctors practicing in China, had founded the CRCMRC early in the twentieth century. The organization was invaluable in free China during World War II by supplying medical personnel, training and equipment (Mamlok, 2018).  Seetoo was familiar with their work and had spearheaded financial collections for the CRCMRC while she was a student nurse. The lack of adequate supplies is illustrated by this recollection of Seetoo’s time with the CRCMRC:

“When I was at the Chinese Red Cross in Guiyang I saw how they were very economical in using their materials, like the dressings …  the very soiled dressings would be thrown out, but there was a great big vat or a pond they had that was full of bleach and whatever, that they throw some of the …  not-so-soiled [dressings] …  to kind of bleach them clean, and after they were clean they would autoclave them and reuse those dressings again …” (Trojanowski, 2005).

Her work with the CRCMRC did not last long. She explained:

“My schoolmate, whose sister had been at Women’s College [of the University of North Carolina] … had gone up to Yenan back in 1938, and Yenan was where the Chinese Communists had holed out during Chiang Kai-shek’s time … she had finished high school and she wanted to join them, because she thought …  they were doing the job of fighting the Japanese better than the Nationalists …  because I knew the family, before I left Hong Kong to come inland I had gone to see the mother, and the mother said, “When you have a chance once you get inland, will you please write my daughter to tell her that we’re safe.” So that was all I did. But then the Chinese Nationalists have a way of censoring all the mail, opening all the mail that goes up there, or at least they take note of it, and the next thing I know they got hold of the nursing superintendent … my supervisor at the Chinese Red Cross, and asked about me … But, you know, the Chinese Nationalists were very—even during my high school years I hear all kinds of stories about people disappearing.  So, when there was an opportunity to volunteer to go to India, I volunteered … But after I went over to India and then came back to Kunming, they lost my trail. That was the end of it.” (Trojanowski, 2005).

Seetoo spent the months from late December 1942 until the monsoons began in June 1943 at Camp Ramgarh, India, training Chinese Army medics in first aid and rudimentary medical procedures.  She said this about her time in India, “For several months we lived kind of the Boy Scout, Girl Scout type of a camping life. I enjoyed it as long as I didn’t have to cook.”  (Trojanowski, 2005).

US citizenship: lost and regained

The CRCMRC trainers shared space at Camp Ramgarh with the US Army 95th Station Hospital.  In the summer of 1943, the two groups left India together for Kunming.  After returning to Kunming the CRCMRC training unit was disbanded, and Seetoo applied to work at the 95th Station Hospital as a member of the US Army Nurse Corps. She was turned down because she had “performed military service for another country” and thus, unbeknownst to her, lost her US citizenship.  She later recalled:

“They [US Army] considered that because of my being in the medical service training unit, it was part of the Chinese army … to regain my U.S. citizenship I had to take the oath of allegiance again, and oath of renunciation and allegiance, which I did.” (Trojanowski, 2005)

Now she was a US citizen both by birth and by naturalization. A year passed between the time it took for her to apply to the Army Nurse Corps, learn she was rejected due to her lost citizenship, regain her US citizenship, and apply again.  She was accepted and on June 17, 1944, she became the first Chinese American nurse to serve in the US Army Nurse Corps.  She entered at the rank of First Lieutenant.  Although she did not serve near the ground war, her hospital was attacked repeatedly by the Japanese Air Force.  “The planes came over to drop their bombs. The Japanese would penetrate [the defensive perimeter of the hospital] and we would hear the sirens and run for cover” (Lee, 2019).

The 95th Station Hospital’s official Army history notes the hospital was:

” … Reached by plane over the Himalayan mountain range-one of the most picturesque, albeit dangerous, flights in the world … having weathered monsoons, air raids, and indoctrination in the treatment and prevention of various tropical diseases …. It functioned as a station hospital to care for battle casualties from the various fronts in China … Officers, nurses and enlisted men were required to learn and carry out duties in addition to those for which they were trained. Long hours of work, doubling-up on duties and diligent application to new tasks were the rule rather than the exception.” (History of the 95th, 1951)

She was the only nurse with the unit fluent in both English and Chinese and was highly valued for both her nursing and her language skills.  Seetoo spent the last months of her military duty, after the war, with the 172nd General Hospital in Shanghai and was discharged to the United States in the spring of 1946.

Years later, Seetoo reflected on her time in China:

“I had spent a total of fifteen years in China. I had had a huge opportunity to dig deeper into my roots and learn more about my Chinese heritage, its history, geography, and traditions. The war years gave me the opportunity to sample places I knew in earlier times only through a geography book, and met people from diverse backgrounds and walks of life. I was able to personally taste Guangxi’s famous pomelos, admire Guilin’s landscapes, read the couplets framing the temple by Kunming Lake, felt the dusty loess blow against my face in northwest China, heard the drum roll from towers over city gates, and see the flickering ghost fires dance outside city walls. It was truly, to quote Dickens, ‘the worst of times and the best of times,’ and on touching U.S. soil I felt I was really straddling two cultures.” (Trojanowski, 2005)

After visiting her family in Stockton, Seetoo visited friends on the east coast.  In Washington, DC she met Joe Yuen, who worked on electrical systems for satellites at the Naval Research Laboratory.  They had a whirlwind courtship and married after six weeks. When Seetoo met Yuen, she was already admitted into the new Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at Women’s College of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro).  Using veteran’s benefits to pay for college, from 1946-1948, she took classes during the week in Greensboro and commuted to Washington to see her new husband on weekends and during school breaks (.

After graduation she moved permanently to the Washington, DC area and spent the next 15 years focused on caring for her husband and their four children. During this time, Seetoo became a freelance translator of English/Chinese medical literature for a company in Washington. Perhaps her best-known translation is the Chinese paramedic text, “A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual.”  In the 1970s she worked as a technical publication writer and editor at the Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health (Moy, 2014).

Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal

Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN.

On December 20, 2018, President Trump signed the Chinese American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, which had passed Congress unanimously.  Soon after, on January 29, 2019, Seetoo was selected to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress, on behalf of all Chinese American World War II veterans. Several high-ranking elected officials and officers of all the military branches expressed their gratitude to these veterans (U.S. Department, 2019).  During the ceremony, Seetoo said:

“We have waited a long time for this moment. I am deeply honored to receive this Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of my sisters and brothers. I hope our perseverance, commitment, and hard work will further inspire our young people to serve this wonderful country.” (Eng, 2020)

Today, at 102, Seetoo is living outside Washington DC enjoying her friends and family.

Trailblazers in Nursing History: Chinese-American Nurse Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN (Part One)

Trailblazers in Nursing History: Chinese-American Nurse Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN (Part One)

When Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo was born on September 14, 1918, in Stockton, California, no one could imagine that by the time she was 30 she would work in a hospital under attack by the Japanese Army; escape occupied Hong Kong disguised as a Chinese servant; travel by boat, truck and foot across 700 miles of war-torn China; become the first Chinese-American nurse to join the US Army Nurse Corps; and then graduate from Women’s College in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.  Her unique and harrowing tale begins decades before her birth. Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo, RN.

Early Life

Seetoo’s father, along with thousands of other Chinese men, came to California seeking jobs and opportunities unavailable to them in their homeland.  When he arrived, Mr. Chin first worked as a laborer and then as a cook for a private family. He saved enough money to open an import-export grocery store business in Stockton.  He became a merchant because it provided the legal status he needed in order to bring his Chinese wife and son to the United States.  After settling in Stockton as a family, the Chins had two daughters. Although she was the only Chinese student in her public-school classroom. she remembers her childhood fondly. The Chin children attended Chinese school from 5-9 pm, in Stockton’s small Chinatown, here they learned to read and write Chinese characters.  In addition to her schooling, she was an active Camp Fire Girl (Lee, 2019)

In 1930 the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression.  The family business was failing, so the Chins decided to return to China.  Because Seetoo and her younger sister were born in California, they were United States citizens.  After completing high school in China, she wanted to further her education.  However, in the 1930s, Japan invaded China and controlled most of coastal and eastern China where the major cities and universities were located.  Many Chinese universities closed during the Japanese invasion and occupation.  In any event, the Chin family did not have enough money to help Seetoo with college expenses.  So, in October 1938 she began her studies at the English language Queen Mary Hospital School of Nursing in the British Colony of Hong Kong (Moy, 2014).

Student Nurse Days

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II.  That same day Japan also attacked the Philippines, Hong Kong, Burma and other Asian countries.  Seetoo recalled:

“… it was the morning of December the eighth, when we were greeted by Japanese bombs and shelling. Of course, we were placed on a wartime footing right away …  All patients that could go home were sent home, and then we were taking in battle casualties that very first morning … after two weeks Hong Kong surrendered … we knew after that the Japanese are going to want the hospitals … the British sisters [nursing faculty] had the foresight to know that they were going to be interned, so they gave us our temporary certificates, RN certificates.  (Trojanowski, 2005).”

On December 10, 1941 during the Battle of Hong Kong, nursing school administrators issued each third-year student a Certificate of Training from the Medical Department of the Government of Hong Kong.  These certificates were on par with diplomas and conferred the title Registered Nurse (Chung, Ching & Wong, 2011).  Chinese, British, Indian and Canadian forces defended Hong Kong during two weeks of fierce fighting.  Facing overwhelming Japanese forces, the allies surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941. By then, Queen Mary Hospital was full of casualties.  Seetoo, alongside hospital staff and fellow student nurses, worked tirelessly caring for the wounded soldiers.  On December 26, 1941, Japanese Army troops entered the hospital, interned the foreign patients and staff, and turned the hospital into a Japanese Military Hospital (Copp, 2001).  Seetoo was 23 years old, a Registered Nurse and living under Japanese rule in occupied Hong Kong.  In an oral history interview she remembered:

“A few days after the surrender we saw some Japanese officers come to inspect the hospital …  as soon as we saw them, we were kind of on edge, because you’d hear all these stories about rape, and rape of Nanking, and the Japanese had been very bad about commandeering women to be part of their—they called it comfort women, which is actually making sex slaves of them. Anyway, we had heard stories of that, so naturally we were very, very concerned.” (Trojanowski, 2005).

Rita Wong, one of Seetoo’s classmates, remembered the early days after the Japanese invasion,

“All foreigners working at the hospital were sent to a concentration camp, and the Chinese were gathered at a hospital where they had nothing to do but wait for their meager food rations.  The Japanese made it a rule that no doctors or nurses were to leave Hong Kong, and those who were caught doing so would be killed.” (Macfie, 2007, p.1)

Escaping Hong Kong

Despite this Japanese edict, Seetoo and several of her Chinese classmates, including Rita Wong, Rebecca Chan Chung, Daisy Pui-Ying Chan, Cynthia Chan and Irene Yu, were determined to help their country and its American and British allies.  They knew they had to make their way to Free China, which was in southwestern China and unoccupied by the Japanese.  Individually and in small groups, these nurses disguised themselves as peasants and slipped past Japanese guards as they escaped from Hong Kong, making the 700-mile journey inland towards Kunming, the capital of Free China (Chung, Chung & Wong, 2012).

Seetoo, her brother and three of her classmates began the journey together.  They traveled to Macao by boat, then hitched a ride with a truck driver to the Chin family home in Xinhui.  After a short visit, the group walked four hours to Shuiko where they boarded a ferry. On the ferry was a classmate of Seetoo’s brother, Mr. Liao.  She recalled their encounter:

“[Mr. Liao said] I’m going to write a letter to the pastor of the Baptist Church at your next stop, Gaoyao, and ask him to let you folks sleep in the church sanctuary – and to provide whatever assistance you need.  And when you leave for the next stop, ask him to write a letter to the Baptist preacher there in Wuzhou asking for the same favor … That was how we finally got to Guiyang – by stopping at various churches along the way.” (Trojanowski, 2005).

In April 1942 they reached Guiyang, headquarters of the Chinese Red Cross Medical Relief Corps (CRCMRC).   There she met Dr. Robert Lim, the director of the organization, who offered her a position in the operating room of the Red Cross sponsored hospital in the city.  Seetoo accepted the offer and went to work.

Click here on Wednesday to see Part Two!

Nurse Historian/Fulbright Scholar Explores the History of Filipino-American Nurses

Nurse Historian/Fulbright Scholar Explores the History of Filipino-American Nurses

When he is not treating kids as a pediatric Transitional Care Unit (TCU) nurse at VCU Health in Richmond, VA, Ren Capucao, MSN traces the rich heritage of Filipino nurses in the US.

PhD candidate and Fulbright scholar Ren Capucao, MSN.As a nurse historian (Capucao’s first article was published in 2019 in the Nursing History Review), he focuses on studying the fascinating story of Filipino American nurses. Capucao is working toward a PhD at the University of Virginia School of Nursing, and his scholarship has shown so much promise that he has been named a Fulbright Scholar for 2022-23 and will be a Fellow at the University of the Philippines, Manila.

“Seeing through my mother’s lens as a nurse,” Capucao says, brought home to him “the sacrifices she made to care for her loved ones. For all the trailblazing nurses that immigrated to the U.S., I can only imagine the struggles they faced on top of caring for patients often culturally dissimilar, so I am humbled to have these nurses invite me into their homes and openly share their memories.”

Capucao will use the Fulbright grant to travel to the Philippines during the 2022-23 academic year to continue his investigations into Filipino nurses’ histories, conducting interviews, collecting oral histories, and diving into historical archives. He is also an editor for the nursing and medical history blog Nursing Clio, and his dissertation study “Pressed into Starched Whites: Nursing Identity in Filipino American History” has already earned him grants and accolades from the Virginia Humanities, the Philippine Nurses Association of America, the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry and the Barbara Bates Center for the Studying of the History of Nursing.

In this video, “A Culture to Care,” Ren shares some background on the history of Filipino nurses in the US and his own very personal links to nursing and the tradition of nursing among Filipinos.