A Break with Tradition

1950s Bring New Nursing Department and Women on Campus 


The following article by Valerie McKeon, Ph.D., RN. professor in the Nursing Department, traces the early history of nursing education at the College. 

Traditionally Saint Anselm enrolled only male students. That’s the way the college began in 1889 and the way it would probably remain, or so it seemed. But in the late 1940s, there was a need for more nurses, and a number of studies had recommended placing the preparation of professional nurses in the mainstream of higher education (rather than in hospital-based programs). 

Several Saint Anselm people, including Father Bernard Holmes, O.S.B., the college’s academic dean at the time, and Miss Ruth Bagley, who would be the first woman administrator at the College and the first chairperson of the new Nursing Department, had the foresight to change tradition and establish a program. Their vision and energy led to the development of a baccalaureate nursing program which has prepared over 2,500 nurses. Many of them have gone on to assume leadership roles in nursing service, education, administration, and research. 

In 1949, Saint Anselm College was 60 years old and experiencing a post-World War II increase in student enrollments. The majority were veterans and all 771 students were male. However, that same year the college began to offer courses for student nurses from a local nursing diploma program. Mary Durning Davis, the director of the Hillsborough County Hospital School of Nursing in nearby Goffstown, N.H., had asked if the college would offer on-campus courses in sociology, chemistry, and microbiology for the nursing students enrolled in the county school. The college agreed to offer this service for the improvement of nursing education. A group of nine students was the first to break the all-male tradition in 1949. 

In 1951, Ruth Bagley and Margaret Amsbury asked the college if it would offer professional nursing courses and establish a degree program at Saint Anselm for graduate registered nurses. Miss Bagley was then the director of nursing at the Elliot Hospital in Manchester, and Amsbury held the same position at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, also in Manchester. 

Since there was a pressing need for nurses, particularly for those with advanced educational preparation to serve in teaching, supervisory, and public health positions, the college decided to establish a program that would lead to a bachelor of science in nursing. 

The administration at first felt some trepidation in admitting females to the all-male college. However, since the nursing students would be day students rather than in residence on campus, the decision to break with tradition was a little less daunting. 

In 1952, the college inaugurated the degree program and Ruth Bagley became chairman of the Department of Nursing Education. She was only 31 when she took this challenging and pioneering assignment at a salary of $3,600 per year. 

With up to 60 credits allowed in advanced standing, a registered nurse who became a full-time student could complete the degree requirements in two years. Full-time students were charged $225 per semester for tuition, while part-time students were billed at a rate of $15 per semester hour. 

Shortly after the college established the program for registered nurses, Saint Anselm also decided to establish a basic (generic) four-year degree program. The college based this decision upon two major considerations. The first was the increasing desire of local young women to enter a collegiate nursing program. Secondly, the National League for Nursing (NLN)—the accrediting body—was questioning the practice of giving credit for hospital school of nursing courses that the college did not offer nor supervise, even though this was common practice at the time. The NLN preferred that RNs be admitted to a generic program. In 1953, Saint Anselm College established a four-year nursing program for high school graduates- the first in New Hampshire. 

The New Hampshire State Board of Nursing Education and Nurse Registration approved the basic baccalaureate program in nursing in April of 1953 and full approval came in July of 1957. In addition, the NLN fully accredited the program beginning in 1959. As of 2000, the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). 

Under Ruth Bagley’s visionary leadership and with the continuing support of the Benedictine community, the Department of Nursing earned and would continue to command national recognition as a program with high academic and clinical standards. And, the nursing students became an integral part of Saint Anselm. So much so, that the final formal admittance of women in the fall of 1974 to all other courses of instruction was a natural and welcome change.