Lyttle, Hilda Margaret 1889–1983
Hilda Margaret Lyttle 1889–1983
Nurse, hospital and school administrator
Hulda Margaret Lyttle was held in high esteem by her medical colleagues as a leader in the nursing profession and a hospital and nursing school administrator. Her career spanned more than four decades, of which she rendered almost 30 years of service to the George W. Hubbard Hospital and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. During her tenure at Meharry, Lyttle was an assertive and progressive catalyst for change in the nursing profession.
Hulda Margaret Lyttle was born in 1889 in Nashville, Tennessee, to David and Rebecca Lyttle. Biographical information pertaining to her parents is scarce; however, it is known that her mother worked for Smiley Blanton, a Nashville physician, caring for his ailing stepmother. While the names of the schools where Lyttle received her primary and secondary education are not known, sources agree that in September 1910 she entered the first class of the George W. Hubbard Hospital Training School for Nurses.
Lyttle was one of 12 members to enter the first class. In an interview with Evelyn Tomes, former professor and chair, Division of Nursing, School of Graduate Studies of Meharry Medical College, Lyttle spoke of her experiences and duties as a student enrolled in the hospital’s training school for nurses. She told of “wearing a hobble skirt with a tight band at the bottom and how an upperclass student planned to make the freshmen ’ hobble around here,’ and [of her] being placed with a junior nurse.” In addition to attending classes and acquiring the theoretical knowledge of nursing, Lyttle gained practical experience through various assignments. She and other students were taught how to make a patient’s bed properly. For six weeks she was assigned to the Diet Kitchen and later was given duty on numerous wards. Because there was no housekeeping personnel, Lyttle and other trainees were responsible for scrubbing and mopping ward floors. The cleaning of floors and making of beds were done in the early morning, prior to the doctors’ rounds.
Three months after entering the professional nursing program Lyttle began her clinical experience, which entailed rotating 12-hour shifts of duty. The young student nurse gained recognition as a bright scholar who was capable of giving the necessary and proper care to patients. A person of compassion, the aspiring nurse preferred ward assignments, which enabled her to work with the less fortunate or charity patients. She told Evelyn Tomes it was her belief that “they needed the most and best attention available.” As she progressed in her studies, Lyttle became proficient in operating-room procedures and techniques. She became known for her ability to effectively dress wounds with dispatch, and attending physicians rewarded her for her talent by requesting her assistance in the operating room. In 1914 Lyttle, Lula Woolfolk, and Rhoda Pugh, a transfer student from Nashville’s J. T. Wilson Hospital School of Nursing, were the first graduates of the George W. Hubbard Hospital Training School for Nurses.
Born in 1889 in Nashville, TN; died on August 7, 1983 in Miami, FL; daughter of David and Rebecca (physician’s aide) Lyttle; Education : George W. Hubbard Training School for Nurses, 1910-1914, graduate; Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, certificate, 1914; passed state nursing exam for licensing, Nashville, 1915.
Career : Hubbard Hospital, Meharry Medical College, head nurse, assistant superintendent, director of the School of Nursing, superintendent, retired in 1943; subsequent to retirement, various other nursing and administrative positions.
Member : Miami Chapter of the Links; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; Church of the Open Door.
Because Smiley Blanton was extremely satisfied with the quality of care given to his stepmother by Rebecca Lyttle, he promised that her daughter would be given the opportunity to continue her nursing education. After Lyttle completed Hubbard’s professional course of study, she became the beneficiary of Blanton’s promise. He recommended Lyttle to the superintendent of nurses at New York’s Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, a healthcare facility with which he had been formerly affiliated and one of the few schools in New York City that accepted African Americans. The Hubbard alumna was admitted to Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing. Lyttle successfully increased her clinical knowledge and experience, and in 1914 she received her six-month certificate. After completing her studies at Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, Lyttle was asked by Charmian Hunt, her former teacher and Hubbard’s superintendent of nurses, to substitute for her at Southern University’s School of Nursing until her contract with Hubbard terminated. In 1915, after her work at Southern University ended, Lyttle returned to Nashville from Baton Rouge and passed the state nursing examination required for licensing.
Upon her return to Nashville, Lyttle’s professional and academic proficiency earned her recommendations for the position of head nurse at Hubbard Hospital from George W. Hubbard, president of Meharry Medical College, and Josie Wells, superintendent of the hospital. Hunt, who was proud of her student’s accomplishments, also recommended Lyttle for the position. Lyttle’s appointment at Hubbard Hospital was the beginning of 30 years of professional service rendered to the hospital and the medical college.
Upon assuming her duties as head nurse, Lyttle immediately set about the task of evaluating the nursing program. After careful analysis, she instituted four administrative changes: the adoption of a set date for entrance to the nursing school; the establishment of regular class schedules; improvement in the quality of instructional courses; and a stop to placing beginning nursing students on hospital night duty.
In 1921 John J. Mullowney became president of Meharry Medical College, and in April of that year, following the death of Josie W. Wells, Paul H. Dietrich became superintendent of Hubbard Hospital. Dietrich was impressed with the changes initiated by Lyttle in the hospital’s nurse-training program, and it was not long before he appointed her assistant superintendent. In 1922 Dietrich put several significant changes into effect, including modification of the nursing curriculum based upon recommendations from the National League of Nursing Education. Admission required high-school graduation or its equivalent, the number of faculty members was increased, volunteer educators from George Peabody College conducted classes in public health and dietetics, and an alliance was formed with the Nashville Council of Public Health Nursing. This affiliation allowed Hubbard’s third-year nursing students to gain three months of practical experience in public-health nursing. In addition to these changes, student nurses were not allowed to miss classes except due to illness, and former graduates were given the opportunity to take continuing education courses taught by Dietrich and instructors from George Peabody College.
Lyttle’s conscientiousness and administrative abilities were rewarded when she was named director of the School of Nursing. She performed her new responsibilities while also carrying out her duties as assistant superintendent. After Dietrich’s departure in 1923, Lyttle was appointed superintendent of Hubbard Hospital. She said in an interview, “They said that I was conscientious … knew the work and they could depend on me.” Her duties included the supervision of nurses’ training, hospital housekeeping, and recordkeeping. During her three-year tenure Lyttle implemented the employment of maids and orderlies, the equipment of the central supply room, the rotation of supervisors and head nurses, and the placement of graduate nurses on night duty.
In an eight-year period, Lyttle ascended the administrative ladders of Meharry Medical College and Hubbard Hospital. Given the fact that both the medical school and the hospital were under the leadership of white executives who, for the most part, had paternalistic attitudes toward black education and were generally adhering to the governing racist and sexist ideas of the era, this was a significant accomplishment.
In 1925, ill health forced Lyttle to request a leave of absence from her responsibilities at the hospital and nursing school. In the January 1926 issue of the Meharry News, it was announced that the officers of the hospital and the college accepted her request for a one-year leave of absence with great regret. Within a short period of time, Lyttle regained her health and returned to Hubbard Hospital and Meharry Medical College. Upon her return, Lyttle continued her campaign to upgrade the quality of nursing care and education at the Nashville medical institution.
Lyttle and the administration improved the nursing curriculum and initiated a program to further enhance the academic standing of the existing staff. During the late summer of 1926, Mary C. Wheeler, general secretary of the Michigan Graduate Nurses Association, was invited to give a series of lectures in nursing education at Meharry Medical College. A few weeks later, after Wheeler returned to Michigan, she contributed a box of books to the nursing school. This was the foundation upon which Meharry’s first nursing library was built. Under Lyttle’s progressive leadership, the nursing school’s teaching staff was supplemented by faculty from Meharry’s medical school and adjunct professors from Peabody College for Teachers, Fisk University, and Riverside Sanitarium.
With funds appropriated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the Edward Harkness Foundation, and George Eastman of the Kodak Corporation, in 1931 Meharry Medical College and Hubbard Hospital moved from South Nashville to a new six-acre site in North Nashville. Located across the street from Fisk University, the new facility consisted of three buildings, including a dormitory for student nurses.
By the early 1930s, Lyttle and the administration had brought about many significant changes in the nursing program of Meharry. All students who entered the nursing school held high school diplomas and many had undertaken postsecondary study. The accepted scientific courses were augmented with such courses as Modern Health and Social Movements, Public Health and Nursing, and History of Nursing and Medicine. Beginning in 1936, the School of Nursing offered summer graduate courses conducted by Phoebe M. Kendel, professor of nursing education at Colorado State Teachers College. Meharry’s graduate extension program was attended by students from cities across the United States.
In 1938 Meharry changed the name of its nursing education program from Training School for Nurses to School of Nursing. Applicants were required to have at least one year of college work. Because of Lyttle’s accomplishments as a nursing educator and school and hospital administrator, she was named dean of the School of Nursing. Working in close association with Edward Lewis Turner, who was elected president of Meharry Medical College by the Meharry board of trustees, Lyttle expanded the course of clinical instruction. They made provisions for students in their senior year to study endemic maladies for a two-month period at the Isolation Hospital in St. Louise. In August 1938 the New York Board of Regents informed Meharry officials that its School of Nursing was accredited by the State University of New York. The changes in the nursing course resulted in an increase in the number of students who passed the comprehensive nursing examination administered by the State Board of Nurse Examiners.
A proponent of continuing education for nurses, Lyttle set an example for both her student nurses and the nursing faculty. During the summers of 1933, 1935, and 1936 she took extension courses at the University of Colorado. In 1938 she received a bachelor of science degree from Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, and in 1939 she received a fellowship from the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation to study nursing school organization and administration at the University of Toronto School of Nursing. A year later she completed the course.
Lyttle was an active participant in professional nursing organizations. In 1929, during the twenty-second annual convention of the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), held in New York, Lyttle addressed the convention’s hospital session. Seven years later, in 1936, she was elected first vice president of the NACGN and in 1939 she was elected president of the NACGN’s southern region. During her presidency, Lyttle traveled throughout the South and her trips were narrated in National News Bulletin. At the Southern Conference meeting held March 17-18, 1939, she was the special honoree at the conference banquet.
Lyttle retired in 1943 after giving almost thirty years of dedicated service to Meharry Medical College and Hubbard Hospital. According to a feature story by Evelyn Tomes in the 1976 Commemorative Journal of Meharry Nursing, her colleagues and students said in an issue of the Meharrian : “Because of her indomitable will and constant blazing of paths in the nursing profession, she has made this one of the most outstanding schools for Negroes.”
Subsequent to her retirement from Meharry Medical College, Lyttle worked in various health-care positions around the country. For almost a year, she provided her services and expertise in the United Services Organization (USO) in North Carolina. Later, she moved to Houston, Texas, where she was to manage a recently inaugurated school of nursing. However, because the school’s organizational and operational standards were inadequate to meet the academic needs of prospective student nurses, Lyttle, with assistance from the state board, closed the school. She then moved to California and for a while worked as a private-duty nurse. In 1948 Lyttle accepted a position with the University of California as administrator of the School Health Programs. Later, she took the position of superintendent of the National Baptist Bath House Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas. There she met S. M. Frazier, to whom she was married in May of 1954. Subsequently, they moved to Miami, Florida. Even as a sexagenarian, she retained her continuing desire for education. In 1958 she received a vocational certificate from Florida’s State Department of Education, and in 1959 she took extension courses at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. In addition to holding a teaching certificate from the state of Tennessee, Lyttle received a teaching certificate from the state of Florida in 1961.
Lyttle was considered one of the most outstanding graduates of Meharry Medical College’s School of Nursing. Three years after her retirement, on June 23, 1946, the student nurses’ residence was named Hulda Margaret Lyttle Hall. Fourteen years after she was so honored, in September of 1960, the Meharry board of trustees voted to close the nursing school due to mounting debt and the loss of its senior nurses, who also held teaching positions in the nursing school. Soon after becoming cognizant of the board’s actions, Lyttle mounted an aggressive fund-raising campaign to secure a plaque listing all of the nursing school’s graduates. Successful in her efforts, a commemorative bronze plaque was placed in the lobby of Hubbard Hospital.
After moving to Miami, Lyttle continued to be an active participant in the community. She was a member of the Miami Chapter of Links, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the Church of the Open Door. Perhaps because of her lifelong career, Lyttle was ever aware of human mortality. According to her obituary, “She planned her Home Going while in the prime of her life and made her complete funeral arrangements.”
On Sunday, August 7, 1983, at Cedars of Lebanon Medical Center in Miami, Hulda Margaret Lyttle’s life ended at 94 years of age. Her funeral was held on August 10 at the Church of the Open Door, and she was interred in Lincoln Memorial Park, Miami. According to The Commemorative Journal of Meharry Nursing, Lyttle was “never too busy or tired to hear the problems of nurses, or to give them advice from her rich store of experience.” She is remembered for her lasting contribution to the African American community as a nursing educator, a hospital and school administrator, and a counselor to her students.
American Journal of Nursing, February 1939, pp. 133-138.
The Commemorative Journal of Meharry Nursing, Meharry Medical College, 1976.
Meharry Bulletin, August 1946.
The Meharry News, January 1926, October 1930.
National News Bulletin, February 1939.
Black Women in United States History, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Carlson Publishers, 1990.
Educating Black Doctors: A History of Meharry Medical College, University of Alabama Press, 1983.
Leaders of Afro-American Nashville, Local Conference on Afro-American Culture and History, 1994.
The Meharry Medical College Archives contain Hulda M. Lyttle’s personal papers. The Evelyn Tomes Black Nursing Collection at Meharry contains an unpublished “Biographical Sketch of Hulda M. Lyttle” by Tomes and oral history interviews that Tomes held with Lyttle.
—Linda T. Wynn