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Gardner, Mary Sewall

GARDNER, Mary Sewall

Born 5 February 1871, Newton, Massachusetts; died 20 February 1961, Providence, Rhode Island

Daughter of William Sewall and Mary Thornton Gardner

As a girl, Mary Sewall Gardner moved with her well-to-do family from Massachusetts to Providence, where she lived and worked all her life. Gardner credited her father and half-brother, both of them lawyers and judges, with teaching her to think clearly and to feel a sense of civic responsibility. In 1890, Gardner graduated from Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. She entered the Newport Hospital Training School for Nurses when she was over thirty.

In 1905, soon after graduating, Gardner became director of the Providence District Nursing Association, which she headed until her retirement in 1931. Worried that the boom in public-health work was leading to employment of poorly trained nurses, Lillian D. Wald, Gardner, and others prodded the two national nurses' groups to establish a standard-setting body. The result was the National Organization for Public Health Nursing (NOPHN), founded in 1912. Gardner helped draft its constitution, was active on its first board of directors, and succeeded Wald as NOPHN president from 1913 to 1916.

Like the NOPHN, Gardner's first book, Public Health Nursing (1916), aimed to guide, restrain, and standardize the efforts of nurses and lay people caught up in the enthusiasm for public health. The first systematic treatment of the subject, it was revised in 1924 and 1936 and was in print until 1945. In a demonstration of the worldwide influence of American nursing methods it was translated into French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. Although used in classrooms, the book served a wider audience by offering advice on how to found and manage a district nursing association, how to run a one-woman public-health program, and how to deal with lay boards of managers.

After she retired, Gardner published two works of fiction. So Build We (1942) presents episodes in the life of Mary Melton, director of a district nursing association. Episodes inculcate proper procedures and awareness of social factors, and conversations sometimes degenerate into lifeless expositions of administrative problems, but the book transcends didacticism in its portrayal of an all-female world. Melton benevolently guides her women subordinates, giving each the guidance she needs. So Build We depicts a world where women's good intentions, intelligence, professionalism, and nurturance suffice to create harmony. The absence of conflict and of more-than-fleeting references to suffering—astonishing in a study of nursing—weaken the book but suggest Gardner's vision of the ideal life.

Katharine Kent (1946), a better book, follows a nurse from graduation to middle age. Like Gardner, Katharine Kent is an upper-class New Englander, a daughter and sister of lawyers who eventually heads a public-health nursing association in her own city. Like Gardner, she writes an influential book while sick and sets up a program to train public-health nurses in Italy. (Gardner used parts of letters she wrote after World War I when she served with the American Red Cross Commission for Tuberculosis in Italy in her account of Kent's European nursing ventures.) Other elements in the book apparently derive less from autobiography than from Gardner's conception of an ideal career. This book ends, as did So Build We, with its heroine affirming her delight in her chosen work.

Gardner's fiction and many of her speeches, articles, and reports celebrate the value of work in women's lives. Professional work creates cherished ties of comradeship and discipleship between women, and egalitarian relationships between women and men or women and their families. Gardner tried to portray women who are happy as stay-at-home wives and mothers, but they remain shadowy figures, alive only in their volunteer service to public-health nursing. In her books it is participation in nursing's "long war against disease and suffering and death" which makes women happy.

Gardner's writings, although sometimes amateurish and preachy, are valuable documents in the history of nursing, professional women, and American civic conscience. No other leader in the effort to make American nursing a profession wrote so openly about her motives and rewards. Despite its wooden dialogue, its narrow, upper-class perspective, and its easy resolution of conflicts, Katharine Kent offers a moving portrait of a woman who pursues autonomy and a fundamentally maternal and Christian ideal of service.

Other Works:

The papers of Mary Sewall Gardner are at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


American Journal of Public Health 36 (Oct. 1946). Providence Journal (22 Feb. 1961). Nursing Outlook (Dec. 1953, Jan. 1954, March 1961). NYTBR (28 July 1946). Survey (July 1942).


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