Woolsey, Abby (1828-1893)

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Abby Woolsey (1828-1893)


Pioneer in professional nursing

Family Background. In 1828 Abby Woolsey was born into an upper-class family that included eight children, seven of them females. She and her siblings spent most of their adolescence in New York City. The Woolseys took an active role in social affairs, and Abby and her siblings engaged in many church and reform activities. Abby showed strong abolitionist sentiments in the 1840s and 1850s, especially after attending a slave auction while visiting Charleston, South Carolina, in 1859. She also supported the womans rights and temperance movements. Her most significant contribution to reform, however, came from her work in the field of nursing.

The Civil War. During the Civil War, Abby and her sisters Georgeanna and Eliza became active members of the Womans Central Association of Relief, organized in New York in 1861 to provide material comforts to sick and wounded soldiers. The association sent Georgeanna and Eliza to federal hospitals as nurses; Abby remained in New York, working with the organization on a full time basis helping to coordinate the collection and distribution of clothing, bedding, and food. Some of the goods were donated, while others were purchased by the Womans Central Association. Woolsey frequently used her own money to buy supplies, and, like other women, she often sewed clothing to be sent to the front.

New Yorks Presbyterian Hospital. After the war Woolsey worked with churches and other organizations to promote social reform. In 1872 the Presbyterian Hospital opened in New York City, welcoming patients irrespective of creed, nationality, or color. The hospitals board of directors chose Jane Woolsey as directress of the new institution; Jane, aware of her sisters superior organizing skills, arranged for Abby to be appointed acting clerk. Abbys position empowered her to direct hospital activities in Janes absence, and the two women worked together to achieve an efficient and orderly hospital administration. Jane resigned the directorship in 1876 because of poor health and because of continuing objections by some male physicians to a woman occupying such a position of authority; Abby turned in her resignation at the same time.

The Beginnings of Professional Nursing. During the years Abby Woolsey worked at the Presbyterian Hospital, she was also occupied with other social-reform movements. In January 1872, she joined a group of upper-class women in founding the New York State Charities Aid Association. The stated goals of the organization reflect both a humanitarian impulse and a desire to promote social order:

1st. To promote an active public interest in the NewYork State Institutions of Public Charity with a view to the physical, mental and moral improvement of their pauper inmates; 2d. To make the present pauper system more efficient, and to bring about reforms in it as may be in accordance with the most enlightened views of Christianity, science and philanthropy.

The association appointed a visiting committee of seventy-eight influential and benevolent citizens of New York, including Woolsey, to inspect conditions at New York Citys Bellevue Hospital, which had been established as an almshouse in 1658. On its frequent visits to the hospital the committee noted that the wards were unsanitary and that the nurses were inadequate in number, nearly all illiterate, some immoral and others intemperate.

Nursing Reform. To remedy the conditions they found at the hospital the members of the Bellevue visiting committee recommended the establishment of a nursing school. The school would be associated with the hospital, a pattern established by Florence Nightingale in England. Woolsey was chosen to draft the plan of organization for the Bellevue Training School for Nurses. Drawing heavily on Nightingales ideas, she proposed an administration consisting of a superintendent, head nurses, and teachers; acceptable nursing students from the middle class should be sought out and provided with suitable living accommodations. The students should be trained not only as nurses but also as teachers, Woolsey stressed: the graduates should feel that wherever they go, they must carry the spirit of the school with them, and that training can go on in every hospital ward where a competent head-nurse is found. The Bellevue Training School for Nurses opened its doors on 1 May 1873. Woolseys organizational scheme, which came to be known as the Bellevue Plan, became a model for other nursing schools in the United States and Canada. Woolsey continued to work with the New York State Charities Aid Association and Bellevue Hospital throughout the 1870s and 1880s. She died in 1893.


Anne L. Austin, The Woolsey Sisters of New York: A Familys Involvement in the Civil War and a New Profession, 1860-1900 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1971).

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