Blasts from the Past: (Nursing) School Days: A brief history of the Nathan Littauer Hospital School of Nursing

PHOTOGRAPHER:

A group of nurses in front of the Nathan Littauer Hospital, 1902.

In the late 19th century, the city of Gloversville was booming. The glove and leather industry drew new folks to the area from across the country and across the ocean. The small metropolis had almost anything anyone could need or want, from specialty shops and general stores to restaurants and a large selection of different religious organizations and social clubs. However, the good citizens of Gloversville realized the one thing they lacked: a hospital. So on May 21, 1891, a Gloversville Hospital Association was formed to establish a hospital in the city. Several members of the Association purchased subscriptions to fund a new hospital. 

That fall, Lucius Littauer proposed donating $25,000 for the hospital on two conditions: the citizens of Gloversville raise a maintenance fund of $10,000, and the name be changed to the Nathan Littauer Hospital Association in memory of Lucius’ father. Thus, the Nathan Littauer Hospital was built and opened on May 30, 1894 with 28 beds and a staff of 11. The original hospital sat on High Street (later renamed Littauer Place). The nursing school was opened later that year.

The first graduating class of four nurses received their diplomas on February 9, 1896: Sarah Jane Oaksford, Mana McClellan, Lois Williams, and Hettie Ellithorpe all completed their courses under Deborah Fawcett, the superintendent of nurses.  

The Harriet Littauer Home for Nurses was built adjacent to the hospital in 1905, named in memory of Lucius’ mother. Harriet Sporborg Littauer was born in Albany and moved to Gloversville, then New York City, after her marriage to Nathan. The building was expanded in 1925. It was well-equipped to house the studying nurses, who enrolled for three years. The facility included private bedrooms; a dining room; living rooms; classrooms; a reception room with a piano, radio, and victrola; a sewing room; a library  stocked with fiction and magazines; kitchenette; and laundry. It also included a sleeping porch that was used during the summer months. 

The Flora Littauer Memorial addition was added to the hospital on May 21, 1926. The addition, built on the other side of the main hospital building, was named in memory of Lucius’ wife who passed away in 1924. A booklet published for the dedication reads: “Indeed the history of the hospital has no brighter page than its record of the many faithful women who have there practiced the honorable profession of nursing … There are no more useful members of society than young women who possess the training of a nurse’s school superimposed on the character and moral fitness of a good home training.”

What did an early 20th century nursing student learn, anyway? The short answer is: a lot. Deborah Fawcett remained in charge of the nursing school for years. A graduate of Mount Sinai Training School for Nurses in NYC, she was “well and favorably known in Gloversville,” and in a 1925 newspaper article, she gave readers a glimpse into what each student nurse learned. Of course, of most importance was “absolute cleanliness, order, punctuality, and the power of observation – the most essential points to be cultivated in the beginning of a nurse’s training.” Among the other things taught were: hygiene of the sick room and ward; the art of bed making (for patients and surgeries); practical nursing; various types of baths (hot air, steam, vapor, sponge, and tub baths for typhoid patients); full instruction on disinfecting rooms and furniture, etc.; the care of appliances, charting, poultices, and lotions; the use of counter-irritants, mustard plasters, medicines, symbols, and abbreviations. And that was just the first year! 

The students continued this study into their second year, along with nursing individual patients. The school also partnered with other hospitals to ensure a well-rounded and intensive education. The nurses learned obstetrics from Albany Med, pediatrics from the Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, and psychiatry from the Utica State Hospital. Six months of the senior year were spent at Mount Sinai, giving the students experience with sick children and diseases in a larger hospital setting. After passing the required Regents exam to become a registered nurse, the Harriet Littauer School of Nursing graduates were eligible for any position within the field.

Today, you would pay a lot of money for a nursing degree. But there was no tuition fee to attend the Harriet Littauer School for Nurses. Applicants were required to be over 18 years of age and of sound health and unquestionable moral character. The state required at least one year of high school education, but the Littauer School gave “preference to young women of superior education.” Students lived on-site and received a monthly allowance in their junior, intermediate, and senior years ($14, $16, and $18, respectively). If they fell ill, they were cared for at the hospital free of charge. They were typically on duty for eight hours, with half of Sunday off and three weeks of vacation per year. Though non-sectarian, all students were expected to be at prayer each morning and attend services at their preferred place of worship.

It wasn’t just women from Gloversville and Johnstown attending the nursing school, either. Illustrating the reputation of the school, students came from Fort Plain, Canajoharie, Fonda, Northville, Wells, Broadalbin, and other surrounding areas, as well as northern New York and Canada. 

Lucius Littauer himself attended several of the graduation ceremonies, including the one held in the new hospital auditorium on March 29, 1930. He presented the Flora Littauer Prizes. These included a 1st year prize for class work, a 2nd year prize for practical work, a 3rd year prize for theory and practical work, and upon graduation a prize for personal deportment, treatment of patients, and humane spirit. The newly formed Harriet Littauer Choral Club performed at the ceremony, and each of the 500 seats of the new auditorium were filled. 

As of April 1968, the school had seen a total of 617 graduates, along with 30 more in the current junior and senior classes that year. Sadly, though, it was the beginning of the end for the Harriet Littauer School of Nursing. Instruction for nursing was moving away from these so-called “hospital schools” and being replaced by institutions of higher learning. The students already took some classes at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, but they would now receive all of their instruction there. The last class at the nursing school graduated in 1969. 

It wasn’t long before the hospital was replaced by the new facility out near Route 30. In an August 6, 1971 Letter to the Editor, Littauer Place resident Mrs. DeWitt Williams lamented the loss of both. She recalled: “Residents of Littauer Place all remember the young student nurses of the Harriet Littauer Nursing Home over the years. How they would gather on the porch on summer mornings, while off duty. Or their voices might be heard drifting out at the end of the day with a refrain of a song and the tinkling music from the old piano. It gives us all a sad pang to remember.”

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