Palmer, Sophia French (1853–1920)

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Palmer, Sophia French (1853–1920)

Nurse and administrator who was the first editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Nursing. Born on May 26, 1853, in Milton, Massachusetts; died on April 27, 1920, at Forest Lawn, New York; fifth daughter and seventh among ten children of Simeon Palmer (a physician) and Maria Burdell (Spencer) Palmer; graduated from the Boston Training School for Nurses (now the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing), on July 15, 1878; never married; children: adopted an eight-year-old daughter in 1906.

Born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1853, one of ten children of Maria Spencer Palmer and Simeon Palmer, a New England physician, Sophia Palmer may have inherited her interest in nursing from her father, although it is recorded that Simeon practiced medicine only "as occasion required," preferring to devote the majority of his time to literary pursuits. Little is known about Palmer's early education, but at age 22 she entered the Boston Training School for Nurses (now the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing), then under the superintendentship of Linda Richards . Upon graduating two years later (July 1878), she went to Philadelphia, where she served for several years as the private nurse for a doctor specializing in nervous and mental illnesses.

In 1884, Palmer returned to New England, becoming superintendent of the new St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She resigned after a year, when the fledgling enterprise ran into hard economic times and was forced to pare down its nursing staff. She returned to private practice, and also spent nine months pursuing graduate study at the Massachusetts General Hospital (1888). In 1889, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she founded and then served as the administrator of the training school for nurses at the Garfield Memorial Hospital. Despite some initial hostility from the medical staff for her new training program, Palmer remained at Garfield for seven years. In 1896, she took over as superintendent of the Rochester (New York) City Hospital and Training school, remaining there for four years.

In addition to her administrative duties, Palmer was instrumental in the development of professional nursing organizations, and she also had a hand in establishing and editing several professional nursing journals. From 1893 to 1895, she helped edit the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review (published by the training school of the Buffalo General Hospital.). She was a founding member of the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses (1893) and served as its representative in organizing the national Nurses' Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (later the American Nurses' Association). Most significantly, Palmer was the first editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Nursing, which published its introductory issue in October 1900. She served as editor until her death in 1920, using her home as an office, and also assumed full responsibility for the business management of the publication. Known for her outspoken editorials, Palmer promoted reforms in nursing education and wrote about vital social issues of the day. She also used the pages of the journal to advocate legislation requiring state supervision of nursing schools and the registration of trained nurses. When the New York law regulating the nursing profession was passed in 1903, Palmer was appointed a member of the Board of Nurse Examiners, and was elected its first chair.

Sophia Palmer, who never married, was described by friends as sympathetic and caring, although she could be militant and impatient when it came to nursing reform. Having a particular interest in young people, in 1906 she adopted an eight-year-old girl, who died at the age of 20. Palmer remained active in the nursing profession until her death in 1920, following a cerebral hemorrhage. Two libraries were established in her memory: the Sophia F. Palmer Library of the American Journal of Nursing, and the Palmer-Davis Library of the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing.


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

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Palmer, Sophia French (1853–1920)

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