The Mother of NC Hospitals Jane Wilkes (1827-1913) Jane Wilkes wasn’t a nurse by formal education, but, like so many women during the Civil War, she learned while treating wounded
Jane Wilkes wasn’t a nurse by formal education, but, like so many women during the Civil War, she learned while treating wounded soldiers.
She volunteered at the Confederate military hospital in Charlotte. As fighting surged and the hospital filled, Wilkes and other nursing volunteers of the Ladies Hospital Association opened additional “wayside hospitals” — one inside a store, another in a storehouse. “The women bravely took up the duty that came to hand, and did everything that could be done for these poor fellows,” Wilkes wrote in an article for the Charlotte Observer in 1896, also noting that many of the men died.
After the war, her pastor urged Wilkes and the other women of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to establish a civilian hospital with separate wards for Black and white patients. The white community opposed an integrated facility, and so the first civilian hospital to open in North Carolina, St. Peter’s Hospital, served only white patients.
Although Wilkes had backed the Confederacy, she never forgot her pastor’s entreaty. After leading the effort to build the first hospital, she raised money from Northern Episcopal congregations for a second hospital to serve Black patients. Good Samaritan opened in 1891.
Atrium Health, the modern-day descendant of Wilkes’s philanthropy, now operates 42 hospitals. Across from its Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte stands a statue of the woman who helped make it possible.
When health care began desegregating, Thereasea Elder endured racism and harassment as one of two Black nurses sent out to care for white people in their homes.
“They put us into the KKK part of Charlotte, and it was a great challenge,” Elder recalled in 2007. “I wore every stitch of my uniform to let them know I was a nurse.”
One patient at a time, Elder helped break down the barriers of segregation. Confronted once as to why she was working in a white neighborhood, she replied, “They’re sick and need a nurse.” Another time, when asked to take out the garbage, she tactfully said that someone else was coming to do it.
After retiring from nursing in 1989, Elder founded the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee, devoted to documenting and preserving Black history. Among other accomplishments, the group successfully lobbied for a plaque to mark where the all-Black Good Samaritan Hospital once stood — now the site of Bank of America Stadium, headquarters of the Carolina Panthers.
Elder began her nursing career at Good Samaritan before becoming a public health nurse. When she died in January 2021, U.S. Representative Alma Adams saluted her as “a remarkable warrior, and a kind and gentle soul who was relentless in her commitment to serve our community.”
Lydia Holman was summoned to western North Carolina in 1900 to care for a former president of Wellesley College who was ill with typhoid fever. Holman witnessed so much disease and dying among Appalachian families that she later returned to western North Carolina and stayed for the rest of her life.
Unlike most rural nurses hired by local communities, Holman undertook the mission on her own. She navigated her way into the community’s heart with the same fearlessness that helped her navigate the steep terrain of Mitchell County on horseback. Her first clinic was an abandoned tar-paper shack. Her only tools were the ones in her nursing kit.
She delivered babies, tended to the sick, and performed minor surgery. Her published reports, housed at Harvard Library, paint a graphic portrait of destitution in the isolated communities. She brought medicine to residents. She also brought them hope, distributing books to children and surprising them with their first-ever Christmas presents.
A native of Philadelphia, Holman drew on contacts within the medical profession up North to help her. Money poured in to start the Holman Association for the Promotion of Rural Nursing, Hygiene and Social Service, and to build a 24-bed hospital. When a few doctors opened practices in Mitchell County, they had Holman arrested for practicing medicine without a license. Holman later wrote that “twenty mountain men or more took credit for having the case thrown out.”
Ever resourceful, she petitioned President Herbert Hoover for help in procuring a car after roads were paved. She could reach more patients, she told him, and also drive voters to the polls. Soon afterward, “the friendly nurse” continued on her mission in a new 1931 Model A Ford.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians needed a hospital, so Lula Owl Gloyne traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1934 to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund one.
For years, Gloyne had provided most of the health care on the Qualla Boundary, reaching patients by horse or ox cart. “I got caught in places where I’d just have to do what had to be done,” she recalled in an interview in 1983. “Men got cut up, and I’d have to sew them up. Women would call on me to deliver their babies. Today, it would be illegal to do a lot of that, but back then, there was no one else.”
When the hospital opened, Gloyne became head nurse. She was a graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and the Chestnut Hill Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia. During World War I, she was a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps, the only member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to serve as an officer in the war.
Gloyne’s contributions to her community are lasting. “She was instrumental in convincing other women to think about going to nursing school or at least going into health,” says her granddaughter Mary Wachacha, a retired consultant with Indian Health Services in Rockville, Maryland, who plans to write a biography of Gloyne.
Wachacha describes her grandmother as “a strong, independent woman” with a “quiet generosity.” “She taught us that what we had was not important,” Wachacha says. “What was important is that we look after other people, give back to other people.”
Percye Powers became North Carolina’s first school nurse in 1911 thanks to the foresight of Home Moravian Church in Salem. The congregation hired Powers to go into Salem schools to document students’ height and weight and screen them for vision and dental problems, swollen tonsils, and malnutrition — and to follow up in their homes if necessary.
That decision appeared prescient when, four years later, a survey found that 80 percent of the state’s schoolchildren needed dental treatment; 10 percent suffered from diseased throats; 5 percent had vision problems, hearing problems, or both; and many others suffered from tuberculosis, malaria, hookworm, and malnutrition.
Alarmed by the findings, the NC legislature approved funds for six full-time school nurses to travel the state. Powers continued her duties in Winston-Salem until 1920, when she became supervisor of nurses at the city health department.
There are now 1,399 school nurses in North Carolina — a nurse-to-student ratio of one to 1,007.
In 1958, when a flu epidemic sickened 60 percent of Ocracoke Island’s 500 residents, nurse Kathleen Bragg treated them by telephone and messenger. She was the only trained health-care professional on the Outer Banks island, and she was sick with the flu, too.
“I went just as long as I could go,” she said in an interview at the time. “Then I started contacting people by phone and sent their medicine by messengers.” Finally, she called on the state for help, and a doctor arrived by boat.
Bragg was born and raised — and died — in her family home near the island’s iconic lighthouse. In the early 1920s, she left for three years of nursing school in Rocky Mount. Back on the island, she not only treated the sick and injured, but she also delivered more than 100 babies. She traversed the island on foot, regardless of the weather, juggling various duties including school nurse, home health nurse, and hospice nurse.
When tourists discovered Ocracoke after World War II, the official town map included the location of her home so visitors would know where to go for that medical help: “Nurse,” the notation read.
Mary Lewis Wyche wrote a book on the history of nursing in North Carolina — and also played a starring role.
After graduating from Philadelphia General Hospital Training School in 1894, she took a position as chief nursing officer at the new Rex Hospital in Raleigh, where she opened the state’s first school of nursing. “The hospital of only 23 beds was rather small to have a school of nursing,” she noted, “but there were patients who needed care and young women who wanted to be taught the art of nursing.” The classroom was located near patients so students could answer call bells when needed.
Inspired by professional meetings in other states, Wyche decided to form a nursing association in North Carolina. But no one showed up for the organizational meeting. Undeterred, she alerted nurses again about “an important meeting of the Raleigh Nurses’ Association.” Curiosities piqued, they all attended. Within a year, the Raleigh Nurses’ Association broadened to become the NC Nurses Association.
As association president, Wyche lobbied the legislature to enact nursing laws. In 1903, North Carolina became the first state to pass a nurse licensure act.
Charlotte Rhone was barred from studying nursing in North Carolina and from working at the hospital in her hometown of New Bern. But Jim Crow laws couldn’t prevent Rhone from achieving her dream.
Along the way, she became a beloved and respected community leader.
Rhone earned her degree from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., in 1901 and earned her living in New Bern as a private nurse, providing home health care and helping deliver babies. She is thought to have been the first African American registered nurse in the United States and was a charter member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
In 1922, when the Great Fire of New Bern burned 40 blocks, Rhone tended wounded African American residents at a makeshift hospital in a church. White hospitals refused to admit them.
Rhone was one of thousands who lost their homes and had to live in tents. Instead of building a new house, Rhone and her sisters built a hotel where they lived upstairs. The Rhone Hotel was included in the Green Book, a resource for Black people traveling through segregated America. Rhone also opened a shirt and dress factory to provide local jobs, and helped in the founding of a hospital and library for Black residents.
Her outreach did not go unnoticed. Craven County hired Rhone as its first Black social worker; she rose to become the first African American assistant superintendent of the Craven County Welfare Department.
When Margaret Dolan spoke to the first graduating class at East Carolina College’s nursing school in 1964, she offered a one-word prescription for excellence in nursing: love.
“Saint John of the Cross said at the end of life that we will be judged by love,” Dolan said. “Not by achievements and successes, but by love. Not by what we did so much as with how much love we did it.”
Dolan led by example. Her achievements were many. Among them, chair of the Department of Public Health Nursing at UNC Chapel Hill, first North Carolinian to serve as president of the American Nurses Association, and the only person to serve as president of three national nursing organizations: the American Nurses Association, the National Health Council, and the American Public Health Association. She also served on advisory committees under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
She accomplished it all with grace and compassion — and with love.
“Alas, too often we hear nurses refer to the appendectomy in [room] 214 or the burns in [room] 561,” Dolan said at ECC. “We must know patients better than this. We must know them as a mother with four small children at home with no one to care for them, or a young high school girl with leukemia who has read enough magazines to know the ultimate outcome of her illness, or the active, prosperous businessman who has suddenly been faced with the paralysis of a stroke.”
Eloise “Pattie” Lewis stepped down in 1985 after 19 years as founding dean of the UNC-Greensboro School of Nursing. But she didn’t retire. She devoted her talents instead to helping bring Hospice to North Carolina.
Lewis volunteered at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro developing protocols to be used in homes. She also served as president of the Hospice Board of Directors and chairwoman of its $1.6 million capital campaign. In 1998, the National Hospice Organization and Palliative Care Organization recognized Lewis with its “Volunteers are the Foundation of Hospice” award.
Pam Barrett, the founding CEO, once described Lewis’s passion for Hospice this way: “She really understood and appreciated the holistic and the spiritual dimensions of Hospice because of who she was.”
Lewis earned her BSN from Vanderbilt University, her Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and her doctorate in education from Duke University. During World War II, she served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at Valley Forge General Hospital.
Before starting the nursing school in Greensboro in 1966, she taught at Woman’s Medical College School of Nursing in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the School of Nursing at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a charter member of the faculty.
Awarded both North Carolina’s “Order of the Long Leaf Pine” and Lebanon’s “Order of the Cedar,” Mary Mills distinguished herself at home and abroad as “nurse ambassador to the world.”
A woman of humble origins — one of 11 children in rural Pender County whose grandparents were enslaved — Mills chose nursing for the paycheck. What began as a way to make a living became a passion.
After getting a diploma in nursing from Lincoln Hospital in Durham in 1934, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University, a certificate in nurse midwifery from the Lobenstein School in New York, and a graduate certificate in health care administration from George Washington University.
She practiced nurse-midwifery in eastern North Carolina for several years and briefly directed the public health nursing certificate program at N.C. College at Durham (now NC Central University). In 1946, the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned Mills to work in its Office of International Health Relations. She was stationed first in Liberia, then Lebanon, setting up nursing schools in both countries. She later launched medical initiatives in Chad, South Vietnam, and Cambodia.
In addition to awarding Mills the “Order of the Cedar,” Lebanon named a dormitory at its Beirut nursing school “Mills Hall” in her honor. Liberia awarded her a knighthood in its Humane Order of African Redemption.
Once, when asked about her many achievements, she simply said: “I was just out at the right time.”