Nutting, Mary Adelaide (1858–1948)

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Nutting, Mary Adelaide (1858–1948)

Canadian-born American leader in professional nursing and nursing education. Name variations: Adelaide Nutting. Born on November 1, 1858, in Quebec, Canada; died on October 3, 1948, in White Plains,New York; daughter of Vespasian Nutting (a county clerk for the circuit court) and Harriet Sophia (Peasley) Nutting (a seamstress); educated at a local academy, a convent school, and Bute House in Montreal; graduated from the Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1891; never married; no children.

Entered the Johns Hopkins Hospital School for Nurses in Baltimore, Maryland (1889), and graduated with the first class (1891); stayed on at Johns Hopkins and became the superintendent of nurses and principal of the training school (1894); served as president, National League of Nursing Education (1896, 1909); helped to establish and served as director of a nursing education program at Teachers College of Columbia University (1899); co-authored four-volume History of Nursing (1907–12); awarded the first Mary Adelaide Nutting Medal by the National League of Nursing Education (1944).

Instrumental in raising the standards for nursing education and bringing it into universities, Mary Adelaide Nutting was born in 1858 in Quebec, Canada, and grew up in nearby Waterloo, not far from the Vermont border. Her father Vespasian Nutting was a county clerk of the circuit court, known as kind and gentle but not a particularly good provider, and so her mother Harriet Peasley Nutting , who was considered an intellectual, helped support her five children with her sewing skills. Nutting was educated at a local academy, and spent an additional year at a nearby convent school and another at a private school in Montreal. She also had lessons in music and art, and when the family moved to Ottawa she studied the piano. In her early 20s, she spent one year teaching music at a girls' school of which her sister was principal in Saint John's, Newfoundland. Most of this period, however, was spent at home, helping with her family's financial survival. Conscious of how circumstances had constrained her mother's abilities and life, Nutting gradually realized that she wanted to do more with her own life. In 1889, on the day before her 31st birthday, she entered the first class of the newly established Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses in Baltimore, Maryland.

She graduated in 1891 and stayed on for two years as head nurse and then as assistant superintendent of nurses. In 1894, Nutting succeeded Isabel Hampton Robb as superintendent of nurses and principal of the training school. In the latter capacity, she instituted many changes, including a new three-year curriculum, improvements in teaching facilities and personnel, the introduction of an eight-hour day and better living quarters for students. By 1901, she had also developed a six-month preliminary program for nursing students; the concept of actually teaching the basics to student nurses before putting them to work (often for 60-plus hours a week) was an innovation at a time when nursing schools were attached to hospitals that wanted cheap nursing staff and did not much care about their training. Nutting also added to the graduate staff for supervision and teaching, initiated scholarships and a fee for the preliminary course, and encouraged students to participate in the new field of visiting nursing. She helped to create a nursing library at Johns Hopkins, which led to her co-authoring of the multi-volume History of Nursing (1907–12) with Lavinia L. Dock .

One of Nutting's greatest achievements was her participation in establishing professional standards in the field of nursing. To help achieve this, she became active in the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses of the United States and Canada (later the National League of Nursing Education), serving as president in 1896 and again in 1909, as vice-president in 1897, and as secretary in 1903 and 1904. She devoted her life to bringing the education of nurses to universities, where nursing students could take advantage of the wider educational opportunities available (e.g., biology and public health). To meet basic professional needs, in 1900 she also helped to establish the American Journal of Nursing. Nutting was instrumental in setting up an experimental program in hospital economics at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. This program allowed nurses to attend courses in psychology and household economics while the Society of Superintendents provided financial support and teachers for new courses dealing specifically with hospitals and training schools. From 1899 to 1907, she traveled back and forth from Baltimore to New York City as a part-time teacher in the program. In 1907, she left Johns Hopkins and became a full-time professor in institutional management at Teachers College, making her the first nurse to be appointed to a university chair. She became head of the school's department of nursing and health upon its creation in 1910, a post she would hold until her retirement in 1925, and in which capacity she helped to shape the developing field of public-health nursing.

Despite being physically frail, Nutting was active in national and international committee work. During World War I, when the need for nurses was critical, she withstood pressure from many directions to drop all nursing standards. She also served as chair of the education committee of the National League of Nursing Education (1903–21) and led a project which resulted in the publication of the Standard Curriculum for Schools of Nursing (1917). Along with Josephine Goldmark and others, she was a member of the Rockefeller Foundation committee which helped produce Goldmark's important 1923 study Nursing and Nursing Education in the United States. Nutting believed deeply that problems in nursing education were all derived from a complete dependence upon hospitals, and that the basic need for schools of nursing was to have a sound economic basis. For this reason, she worked constantly for endowment funds for nursing schools.

An avid reader and active suffragist, Nutting was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club of New York City, chief founder of the Women's Faculty Club at Columbia, and a founder of the American Home Economics Association. Among the honors she received were the Liberty Service Medal (World War I) of the National Institute of Social Sciences, an honorary M.A. from Yale University (1922), and the honorary presidency of the Florence Nightingale International Foundation (1934). In 1944, the National League of Nursing Education established the Mary Adelaide Nutting Medal, which bears an image of her sculpted by Malvina Hoffman ; Nutting was the first recipient. She died in her sleep in 1948 in White Plains, New York, less than a month before her 90th birthday.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

suggested reading:

Christy, Teresa E. Cornerstone for Nursing Education: A History of the Division of Nursing Education of Teachers College, Columbia University, 1899–1947, 1969.

Cremin, Lawrence, et al. A History of Teachers College, Columbia University, 1954, pp. 53–56.

Goostray, Stella. "Mary Adelaide Nutting," in American Journal of Nursing. November 1958.

Johns, Ethel, and Blanche Pfefferkorn. The Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing, 1889–1949, 1954.

Roberts, Mary M. American Nursing, 1954.

Stewart, Isabel M., and Anne L. Austin. A History of Nursing. 5th edition, 1962.


Personal and professional files covering Nutting's life are in the archives at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City; the school also holds a 1906 portrait of Nutting by Cecilia Beaux .

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont