Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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A Storied Cape: U.Va. President Donates Mother’s Nursing Cape to School of Nursing

She was a caped crusader of a different sort.

Mary Elizabeth Finnegan, born on a farm in Bradford, Ill. in 1916, was just 25 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. She enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps shortly afterward, and began a whirlwind of travel, service and nursing “under live fire” in the European theater in World War II.

It goes without saying that her experiences left an indelible mark, Finnegan’s daughter, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, remembers.

“My mother ended her European service as a nurse at the Nuremberg trials,” she said. “She spent the rest of her professional career working with veterans who were patients at V.A. hospitals.  She conveyed to me a vivid impression of the long-term impact of violent conflict and the need to care for those who had served our country.”  

Sullivan recently gave her late mother’s nursing cape – a below-the-hip-length navy woolen garment that would’ve been part of her traditional nursing uniform in the 1940s to 1960s, when she practiced – to the U.Va. School of Nursing’s Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry.

The center, one of just a few such archives around the world, is the repository of thousands of personal effects, documents and other pieces of nursing memorabilia, as well as a growing digital archive of nurses’ stories. Documenting both routine nursing practice and dramatic times in nursing’s history, the narratives give voice to professional nurses often invisible in history books, while the artifacts bring the nurses’ history to life.

“The center serves a critical function in terms of preserving artifacts and documents, promoting nursing historical research and disseminating findings in books and articles,” said Arlene Keeling, Centennial Distinguished Professor of Nursing and director of the Bjoring Center. “Having President Sullivan’s mother’s cape is a very real way for us to engage in nursing’s history, and it supports our mission to inform today’s nursing students with lessons from the past. This cape adds to a growing collection of military nursing archival data available in the center.”

After the war discharge, Finnegan earned her B.S.N. from Washington University on the GI Bill – unusual move in an era when most nurses stopped after graduating from schools of nursing that offered two-year diplomas. She served as associate chief nurse at a veteran’s hospital in Little Rock, Ark. before retiring to Jackson, Miss. in 1963. She remained in Jackson until her death in 1980.

The Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, located in McLeod Hall and nestled between the schools of Nursing and Medicine, is open by appointment, and detailed descriptions of many of its collections are available online.

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