In 1960, Ann Kiessling (Nurs ‘64) was at a crossroads. She’d just graduated from high school and knew she wanted to go into science, but wasn’t quite sure how. She’d narrowed it to two possible avenues: medical school or research. She enrolled in the nursing program hoping it would help clarify her real passion.
“One of the most positive experiences was the hospital experience,” she says. “At the time, the nursing students were given a great deal of independence, and the medical staff treated us not much differently from the way they treated the med students.”
One highlight was working with Dr. William H. Muller, who was then the chairman of the department of surgery. At the time, open-heart surgery was a relatively new procedure, and he had developed one of the replacement heart valves. “I was invited to team meetings,” says Kiessling, “because I’d shown such an interest. I was interested in the logistics of how they were going to bypass the heart, how the equipment was designed, how they were going to oxygenate the patient.”
Kiessling ended up choosing research. After obtaining subsequent degrees, including a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics, Harvard recruited her in 1985; in 1996, she founded the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation.
When Mavis Claytor (Nurs ’70, ’85)—the first African American to earn a degree in the nursing school—arrived in Charlottesville, she stayed at a hotel for a month because she was unable to secure housing in the student dorms as a black student. When she ran out of money for her hotel room, she sought help from the dean of the Nursing School, Mary Lohr (Nurs ’62), who was able to help find a room in the dorms. Still, when Claytor speaks of her education at UVA, this initial hardship appears to be a minor setback. “I was so focused on getting my education that I did not pay attention to the fact that I was the only black student,” says Claytor.
She frequently returned to her hometown of Roanoke on the weekends because she missed the comforts of her home and community, but at UVA, Claytor was a driven student. Already a registered nurse, Claytor was a popular study partner because of her experience and knowledge. She was asked to join a sorority but declined.
When she was 16, Claytor cared for her ailing grandmother and decided then that she wanted to become a nurse for the elderly. She worked as a licensed practical nurse in Roanoke until she was offered a scholarship at Helene Fuld Nursing College, where she became a registered nurse. She wanted to go to UVA for her bachelor’s degree because it was an accredited school, but she considered the move somewhat risky. “My family was limited financially and I knew I would just have that one opportunity, so I wanted to do the best that I could. I was determined: This is going to be it for me.”
Claytor found a mentor in Jeanne Cutler Fox (Nurs ’68), an instructor in the Nursing School who encouraged Claytor to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. At this time in the University’s history, Claytor could see more doors opening for women. “I felt that that was a good time for females to enter any program that they wanted to.” Claytor recently retired as the chief of geriatric nursing at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, Va., after a career of 30 years.
“At UVA,” she says, “we didn’t think that much in terms of race or gender. I think we were just focused on the educational climate at UVA. We always had football games and activities that brought people together. Times were beginning to change rapidly.”
The School of Nursing
In 1901, the UVA hospital created a nurses’ training program, which granted diplomas to thousands of women over the next 50 years, but was not recognized as part of the academic offerings of the University until 1949. Nursing students initially lived in rooms in the attic of the hospital building. Patient overcrowding in the hospital and a measles outbreak resulted in the adaptation of Varsity Hall in 1914 from its initial use as an infirmary to accommodations for nursing students. Nursing students went on to live in Randall Hall, starting in 1919, and McKim Hall, which was built in 1931. The School of Nursing became an independent school of the University in 1956, with Margaret Gould Tyson the school’s first dean. Men were admitted in 1962; the first male student, Thomas Watters (Nurs ‘66), had been a U.S. Navy corpsman.
Mr. Jefferson’s Nurses by Barbara Brodie details the school’s ban on marriage for nursing students. Even into the mid-‘50s, faculty would vote on whether to allow a nursing student to marry without leaving the program.