Monday, April 18, 2011

History of the VNAB: The People, The Times and How We Became Who We Are

VNA CEO readers know that we're celebrating our 125th continuous year as the very first Visiting Nurse Association in the United States.  Thank you for your comments, questions and emails asking about our origins and storied history.  I'm happy to announce that, starting today, our very own Rebecca Dempster, a talented writer and our education program coordinator, will begin the process of formally telling our story. 

Here's the beginning...

My name is Rebecca Dempster and I am the Education Program Coordinator at the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston (VNAB). Over the next few months I will be a contributing writer chronicling the agency’s history and how it has been such an integral part of our community’s rich history. We are celebrating our 125th year in business, 1886 – 2011. Wow! That just goes to show what a great idea Miss Phebe G. Adam and Miss Abbie C. Howes had in 1885 and what an essential resource a visiting nurse is – then and now!

As we celebrate this anniversary we find ourselves gazing back over the decades and centuries. We dig out the boxes of old photos and see the serious and determined faces of our predecessors from the 19th century , the spiffy and energetic nurses of the mid-20th century and our coworkers at get-togethers from a the past 10 or 20 years. We revisit the bound volumes of annual reports sitting on an obscure shelf gathering dust, intending to spend a couple of minutes casually flipping through the pages, only to emerge an hour later having been drawn into the stories of the dedicated and passionate ladies who first envisioned visiting nurses in Boston and with vivid images of the valiant efforts of our first nurses.

This year, in addition to celebrating our 125th anniversary, we are also celebrating the re-establishment of our relationship with the School of Nursing at Simmons College – a relationship that was first formed in the early 1900s. We are working on exhibits displaying our rich history, so my colleagues and I headed out to the archives at Boston University and Simmons College to delve a little deeper into our past and to see what we could dig up in terms of original letters, articles and photos relating to important events in our history.

On a blustery day in March we were ushered into the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at BU by Diane Gallaher, Nursing History and University Archivist. Diane issued each of us a pair of white cotton gloves, asked us to place all our bags, coats, sweaters, and scarves in a locked closet and to leave our IDs at the front desk. Then the 35 boxes of VNAB archival material were rolled into the hushed room. It was totally overwhelming and I couldn’t imagine how we were going to cover all this material. I randomly picked up Box 1 and started sorting through the collection of letters, notebooks and articles inside. While my colleagues efficiently absorbed the contents of several boxes, I sat there feeling pretty useless as I tried to decipher the spidery handwriting of Elizabeth Cordner, tried to understand what the Instructive District Nurses Association was, marveled at the extensive correspondence regarding fundraising and networking, and wondered who Mrs. Codman and her brother Ingersoll Bowdtich were.

Back at the office the next day I told anyone who would listen about how amazing these people were, and the amount of work that went into founding the VNAB and the energy and dedication that shone through all the activity revealed in that box of documents– and most of all how reading these documents brought to life what were otherwise just names on a page. I think I was starting to drive everyone crazy sending out long “Did you know….!” and “ Can you believe….!” e-mails, so the company has kindly offered me an outlet for my enthusiasm in the form of this blog and hopefully I will stop clogging in-boxes with my latest revelation!

As I read the original documents and think about our history, one of the things that drives me is a curiosity about the people – who they really were, what motivated them, what influences, personal and social, led them to do what they did. What were their strengths and weaknesses, how did they manage the work, did they like each other, was there friction, what were their family and social connections, did they do a good job? I also find myself curious about the social and political environment in which we operated and how that influenced the steps we took as an organization and perhaps how that differed from the track community health took in England. It is also interesting to see some of the same themes and concerns that we still talk about today: poverty, lack of education, infectious disease, chronic disease, tracking outcomes and finding money to keep the doors open. Does this mean that we have not succeeded in solving the public health problems we were facing 125 years ago and that we are still fighting the same battles? Or is it just the human condition, and the role of people in the “helping” professions is, and will forever be, to fight human tendencies that compromise our personal health and that of our communities and to support and facilitate change in behavior, provide opportunity, form healthy communities, and educate?

Lastly, just a couple of disclaimers before I finish up this week’s entry. I am not a historian and due to my limited time and expertise I am certain I will miss many events, that many of my thoughts will be naïve, and that I may even be downright wrong about some things. My guide is curiosity and my goals are to share some of the original material which would otherwise remain hidden away in boxes in archival collections, to put the path of our history into the context of what was happening in the world around us, and to try to bring to life the women…and even a few men, who played a part in establishing and the continuation of our venerable organization. Hopefully, in sharing what I find interesting and what I am curious about I will be able to create a kernel of interest in others. I also hope that readers will add their own comments, knowledge and reaction to the topics covered in the blog – and also perhaps suggest topics for investigation if you see a gap or are curious about something that an archival resource or a bit of historical research might shed some light on…or even to do some of investigating yourselves and share what you find! There are numerous on-line resources that provide Finding Aides for original material kept at repositories in Boston…the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Public Library, the Harvard Archives, Boston Atheneum – not to mention what we might find just scanning the VNAB bookshelves and looking in closets! Searching Google Books and the Boston Globe Archives can also be very informative.

Check back each week as I unearth and dive into the rich, sometimes ironic, but always interesting history of the VNAB.


  1. Rebecca as one of the folks who has cleaned many closets at VNAB and wondered about old equipment that the clinicians used and seeing the improvement of the updated version I to get curious. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to reading more.

  2. I have been part of the VNAB team for just 4 months now. And, as a bit of a history buff, I couldn't have arrived at a more exciting time. I look forward to all the information shared regarding this remarkable milestone, in a company so rooted in the history of our beautiful city!

  3. Hey Lorraine -

    Do you have any old equipment around that you think would be interesting to display? We are dedicating a shelf in the display at Simmons to objects from nursing practice past. I suppose most of it has been thrown away to make space for the new!


  4. Thanks Todd -

    Please feel free to add your comments re history any time. When you see history as relevant and personal it really becomes more interesting doesn't it...


  5. Thank you for taking the time to share your research with us. I started at the VNAB when we were celebrating our 100th anniversary and have seen much change and growth over the years, but am still fascinated by the (really) early years. I am sure there is much we can learn from our past and I look forward to having you share it with us.

  6. Hi Rebecca---I share your fascination with stories from the past (as well as the present) and am amazed at the foresight, stamina and compassion that our predecessors had.
    I was struck by your observation about many similar themes and concerns with home health care today and your question asking if we’re still fighting the same battles or is it just the human condition?
    I thought I’d share an observation by Margaret Mead (an American cultural anthropologist) who lived among peoples in “primitive” societies). I had the surprising good fortune of meeting and spending a recent week-end with Margaret Mead’s daughter, who is also a cultural anthropologist.
    Margaret observed that the essential human facts and problems are basically the same in all societies the world over i.e. birth, illness, death.
    She observed while living among New Guinea mountain natives, that depending on their (the native peoples’) experience and talent, “they come to have a special function in society…they come to be the guardians of some part of the whole life of the group in which they live.”
    To an audience of nurses in Chicago, in 1956, she said that “The need for this function of protecting the vulnerable is one that will never disappear. There is no possibility of a human society where it will not always exist.”
    She goes on to say “because of your special training, your special insights, and your special sensitivity, you can take over the task of guarding certain things in the whole of our national life.”
    This talk was published in an article in the “American Journal of Nursing” in August, 1956, titled “Nursing---Primitive and Civilized”.
    The quote that stuck out for me follows.
    “The protection of the vulnerable, the sensitive understanding of grief, and the compassionate service of her/his hands are unique functions of the nurse in our modern society”.
    So yes Rebecca, there is a Santa Clause…er, I mean there is a group of helping professionals whose role is “to fight human tendencies that compromise our personal health and that of our communities and to support and facilitate change in behavior, provide opportunity, form healthy communities, and educate” Thank you for that wonderful definition.
    And, thank you to all the VNAB staff, past, present, and future.