Life as a Student Nurse in the 1920s

The first class of student nurses entered RCH in 1901 – the era of the horse and buggy doctor and a Victorian way of life. The last class graduated in 1978 – the age of atomic power and supersonic aircraft, of miracle drugs and medical marvels – and an ultra-modern way of life. Esther Irene Paulson, whose 41-year career as a nurse began at RCH in 1925, decided to mark the school’s 75th anniversary in 1976 by writing its story and its valedictory. This is part of her story.

Esther Paulson, Student Nurse 1926 Uniform has long sleeves & loose cuffs

The Training School facilities at RCH were housed in the hospital and consisted of a small classroom and a demonstration room on the second floor. These were augmented by use of the Board Room as a lecture hall, usually for classes given by the doctors. Uniforms, which had been ankle length, were now at mid-calf. The clerical style, stiff collar had given way to a lay-down style, but it was still stiff and chafed the neck in vulnerable spots. The residence accommodation was in two frame houses at the rear of the hospital, one of which was the former Maternity Cottage. The rooms were sparsely furnished and linoleum covered the floors. There were two to four students in each room, and 27 students shared the two bathrooms.

The probationers were assigned to ward duty on their first day. Tales of blunders and embarrassments were shared and greeted with hilarity or reactions of gloom and despair and threats of quitting and going home. The daily ward routine had not changed greatly from the previous decade.

The hours on duty were from seven in the morning until seven at night with three hours off; theoretical instruction was crowded into the already full day, leaving little time, energy or incentive for study. Students on day duty attended classes in their “free” hours and in the evening, and those on night duty did so in their sleeping time!

It is true that time softens harsh memories and, despite the arduous routine, one remembers the lighter moments and the companionship and support of one’s classmates. We learned to discard uniform for mufti in record time and run for the street car to make full use of hours off or the half-day. Street car conductors usually glanced toward the hospital side of the street and would wait for anyone on the run. We had four late passes each month – two for 10:30 and two for midnight. A familiar excuse from those who returned late was “the bridge span was open.”

Graduation time was exciting for the entire school and hospital as well as for the class of the year, but graduation day of 1925 had some unplanned excitement for everyone. Lightning struck the rear of the hospital, just at supper-time. The fire gong sounded and everyone – on and off duty – rushed to the respective wards and departments, including the recently admitted class of probationers, of which I was one. The elevator fell with a tremendous thud, the fire engines arrived and the firemen charged in. There was a great deal of activity which the class of 1925 will no doubt recall. In any event, the graduation exercises took place despite a belated arrival at the auditorium of the Duke of Connaught High School.

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3 Comments on “Life as a Student Nurse in the 1920s”

  1. mannis2 Says:

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading about the Training School and the incredible dedication to education from the staff.

    • rch150 Says:

      Thank you. Hard to believe the conditions in which they worked and learned. I’ll be posting the official “Rules for the Class Room” tomorrow. Yikes! About as far as they could get from learner-based or interactive learning.

  2. sdaven5191 Says:

    A wonderful story, and so well told!! I can’t imagine being a brand new probationer with NO training whatsoever and being given ward duty right off the bat! That must have been rather terrifying for all involved. And those long scratchy necked uniforms would have made life interesting too! And a very dedicated staff as well.
    Things must have been changing at a slower pace than they have been lately, even with so many relatively recent discoveries of the day coming to the forefront. Doctors and nurses of the time, especially the older ones, were likely very reluctant to give up the ways they knew best! It seems from other reading I’ve done in researching nursing schools, students, education, and general working conditions, that “We do it this way because this is the way we’ve always done it” was allowed to flourish on a grander scale than today.
    An interesting story to give us a peek back in time! Thanks for sharing!


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