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Nursing at the University of Toronto

In a 1925 internal Rockefeller Foundation (RF) memorandum Edwin R. Embree, Director of the Division of Studies, wrote to President George Vincent regarding RF policy toward nursing education. In that correspondence Embree argued that funding should be reserved for “the occasional school that is about to make a real contribution by its influence and by the leaders and teachers of other schools which it may turn out.” Embree called these schools “light houses.”[1] From its opening in 1933, the School of Nursing at the University of Toronto became the RF’s pre-eminent lighthouse, developing a world-class reputation for its innovative teaching and programs.

A class of students just completing the direct training in Public Health Nursing, Toronto (Ont.) 1939

A class of students just completing the direct training in Public Health Nursing, Toronto (Ont.) 1939

Building a Lighthouse

The establishment of the School of Nursing at the University of Toronto and its early successes can be attributed to Kathleen Russell, the school’s first Director, and Mary Beard, Associate Director of the International Health Division (IHD). Russell was appointed Director of the University of Toronto’s Public Health Nursing Program in 1920. She quickly began to lobby for an independent yet affiliated nursing school with control over its own finances, administration, standards and curriculum. The RF, and Mary Beard in particular, proved instrumental in helping to achieve this goal.

The establishment of the School of Nursing built on an existing relationship between the RF and the University of Toronto. The university regularly accepted RF-sponsored international nursing fellows into its public health program, while the RF offered regular financial support to the University’s Faculty of Medicine and its School of Hygiene. These existing relationships gave Toronto an advantage over other institutions vying for RF funding to establish a school of nursing.

 In 1928 Russell contacted Beard to gauge RF interest in helping to develop a nursing school at the University of Toronto. Russell proposed a school that would prepare nurses and teachers for both public health and hospital work.  Her proposal also included plans for courses in health administration and graduate studies in nursing. Beard initially advised Russell to hold off on her proposal while she sold RF trustees on the idea. RF trustees accepted the proposal two years later, although changes in the government in Ontario and funding issues delayed the school’s opening until 1933.

School of Nursing - progress photo, Toronto (Ont.) 1953

School of Nursing - progress photo, Toronto (Ont.) 1953

The initial RF grant included $87,500 to be used over a five-year period. In 1937 funding was renewed by the IHD for $20,000 over two years. In 1939 the RF provided the School of Nursing with an endowment of $250,000. In granting this final endowment, the Foundation noted, “The Toronto School is exerting a beneficial influence not only on the training schools in the City of Toronto but also on those throughout Canada and in foreign countries.”[2]

A New Kind of Nursing Education

Innovation characterized the School of Nursing from its inception. The school was the first to offer nursing students a combined degree in both hospital and public health nursing. In the school’s first annual report from 1933-34, Russell reported that:

The new work has been done with greater ease than had been thought possible and, further, more has been accomplished in this first year of training than we had hoped for at the outset. These results are evidence of the fact that the principles underlying the experimental work are acceptable to the nursing, medical, and hospital authorities with whom we are working.[3]

The quality of applicants also showed promise from the very beginning. Writing to Beard in 1933, Russell noted, “The best news of all is that exceedingly good applications are coming in. It seems we shall have no difficulty about enrolment: in fact the difficulty now is in making the selection.”[4]

Training the World

A group of students at the School of Nursing from Brazil, China, Philippine Islands and the U.S., Toronto (Ont.)

A group of students at the School of Nursing from Brazil, China, Philippine
Islands and the U.S., Toronto (Ont.)

The School of Nursing at the University of Toronto hosted 39% of all RF international nursing fellows - more than any other nursing program.[5]  Applicants were chosen from all over the globe based on a competitive system of examinations and interviews designed to gauge academic potential and leadership skills. The university also hosted a significant number of African-American students from the United States -- students who might otherwise have been denied similar educational opportunities. The fellowship program was also instrumental in creating social and professional networks that helped to connect and sustain the field and to shape outstanding careers.

[1] Memorandum from Edwin R. Embree to George Vincent, August 29, 1925, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3, Series 906, Box 2, Folder 15.

[2] Minutes of the RF, December 7, 1938, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 427C, Box 12, Folder 92.

[3] Annual Report of the School of Nursing at the University of Toronto, 1933-34, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 427C, Box 12, Folder 97.

[4] Letter from Kathleen Russell to Mary Beard, June 20, 1933, RAC, RG 1.1, Series 427C, Box 12, Folder 96.

[5] John Farley, To Cast Out Disease (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 230.

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