Van Rensselaer, Euphemia
Autograph Note Signed as Acting Superintendent, Training School for Nurses [Bellevue Hospital], New York, October 14, 1874, to Frances Root

octavo, one page, in very good, clean and legible condition.

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“Dear Madam,

                  I fear from what you say that your health will be an obstacle to entering the Training School as it requires sound health to stand the fatigues of our work …”


               Sometimes credited, perhaps inaccurately, with being the “first trained nurse in America”, Euphemia Van Rensselaer came from one of the wealthiest upper crust New York families, her great-grandfather, Rufus King, was a signer of the United States Constitution and James Monroe’s unsuccessful opponent for the Presidency. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse for the Union Army, much to the disapproval of her family, remaining in that work after the war. In 1873, a Training School for Nurses was opened at New York’s Bellevue Hospital – the first such professional school in America founded on the nursing principles of Florence Nightingale. Whether or not Van Rensselaer, then in her late 50s, was a graduate of the school’s first class, or even a formal student of the school, is subject to dispute, but this letter proves that she was indeed the School’s Acting Superintendent soon after its founding, apparently replacing the British woman who first held that position. Eventually asked to stay on as the permanent Lady Superintendent, she declined because she was about to convert to Catholicism and join the Catholic Sisters of Charity as “Sister Marie Dolores.” She may also have been the first trained American nurse to work regularly in an operating room, but there is no question that she was responsible for designing the blue-and-white striped nurse’s uniform, adorned by a Tiffany designed Nursing pin, which would become the professional nursing standard for decades to come, its universal adoption helping to blur the social distinction between nurses from working class backgrounds, and “lady nurses” like Van Rensselaer.

                Ironically, despite the discouraging words in this letter, Frances Root (again, inaccurately described in some historical records as Van Rensselaer’s “classmate”) did graduate from the School that year and went on to distinction of her own, becoming America’s first “home health nurse”, having established the first visiting nurse service for the sick and poor of New York City.