Texas Nurses: A Legacy Of Care & Compassion

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn | May 18, 2011

Life on the Frontier was many things: it was thrilling, daring, and adventurous. It was liberating and empowering. But one thing I think most of us can agree on�life on the Frontier was not easy.

When we hear tales told of the Old West, they often include scenes of bloody gunfights, rattlesnake bites, unbearable heat, and a long list of diseases�from smallpox to typhoid�whose symptoms would make anyone squeamish.

We're familiar with the frontiersmen who suffered any number of these maladies during their often short lifetimes � cowboys, rangers, sheriffs, ranch hands, and outlaws alike. But one person is often missing from these colorful stories, and she is the one who�day or night, for scoundrels or saints�attended to their injuries and illnesses: the nurse of the Frontier.

Before the development of formal nursing education programs, many early Texas nurses were not nurses by trade but housewives, mothers and women who by the nature of their domestic responsibilities, also took on the duties of local 'nurse' and 'caretaker.' On the Frontier, it was largely considered part of a female's role to care for the sick, sanitize and suture wounds, and help women during childbirth. Physicians were few and far between, so it was often the closest female who was called on when someone fell ill or was injured. During one of the bloodiest battles in Texas' history, the Battle of the Alamo, it was women like Susanna Dickinson and Andrea Casta�on Villanueva who nursed the injured defenders and sat by their bedsides during agonizing nights.

With a long list and variety of diseases plaguing Texas towns on the Frontier, many of these "lay nurses" became extremely skilled and were called on to care for the sick and injured beyond their homes and towns. Some of the first groups of lay nurses to have a wide impact on nursing in Texas were Catholic congregations of women.

In 1866, Claude Marie Dubuis, second Catholic bishop of Texas, wrote to Mother M. Angelique of the Monastery of the Incarnate Word in Lyons, France, asking if she would send sisters to volunteer their time as nurses in Galveston. His request was answered when three sisters arrived from Lyons to Galveston and opened St. Mary's Infirmary in October 1866. For Bishop Dubuis, their arrival could not have come at a more urgent time. In the year following the sisters' arrival in Galveston, a horrific yellow fever epidemic hit Galveston, and more than 1,000 patients were seen by the small St. Mary's Infirmary. Sadly, as they fought the epidemic, one of the founding sisters contracted the disease and died. Still, from this small hospital, the number of nurses grew and many eventually left Galveston to establish hospitals in Beaumont, Texarkana, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Amarillo. In time, nursing schools were also established alongside these hospitals across Texas.

Today, more than 150,000 registered nurses care for Texans in every field of medicine. Our state is home to some of the finest nursing schools in the country, and Texas nurses are employed by the world's leading hospitals and research facilities. Organizations like the Texas Nurses Association, founded in 1907, and the Texas Board of Nursing, 1909, are committed to advancing excellence in nursing and the highest standard of care for patients.

This month, we celebrate National Nurses Week, from May 6 to May 12�the birthday of Florence Nightingale. It is a fitting time to pay tribute to the thousands of nurses, past and present, who have dedicated themselves to the health and well being of all Texans. I hope we can each take the time to thank the nurses in our lives for their commitment to our comfort, care and good health.

Source: Texas State Historical Association

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