A Johns Hopkins Nurse: “Sincerely” Frances P. Toulmin
Part of the excitement and frustration of collecting vintage photographs lies in unraveling puzzles from the past. By now I’ve had some experience tracking down long-ago graduates of Baltimore medical and dental programs, and even a group of nurses from Western Maryland Hospital, but Frances P. Toulmin was my first Baltimore nurse.
Despite the presence of an inscription, several challenges presented themselves. One was the unusual last name. At first I looked for Tomlinson, but the ones I found didn’t fit the 1890s time frame of the cabinet card style. And what did the initials “J. H. H. ’92” mean?
Finally a brainstorm: Johns Hopkins Hospital 1892. I quickly found a June 1892 Baltimore Sun account of the commencement ceremonies for the second graduating class of trained nurses from the newly established Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing.
Among the graduates: Frances, or “Fannie,” Priestley Toulmin.
The two-year course of study had just been established at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889. Eighteen graduated in 1891, and Frances was among the second group of 21 to complete the curriculum successfully.
Success was by no means a given. The principle of the program was that “the School should form an organic part of the hospital and be fully identified with its work” (Ethel Johns and Blanche Pfefferkorn, The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, 1889-1949, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1954, p. 59).
Less a course of study than a trial by fire, the program immediately put the untrained young women to work on the often crowded wards. The students worked 12-hour shifts, both day and night, caring for patients with everything from typhoid to mania.
In addition, the students attended lectures and demonstrations given by the program’s head, Isabel Hampton, its cooking instructor Mary A. Boland, and its pioneering doctors, including William Osler, Henry M. Hurd, William Welch, and Howard A. Kelly.
The young women went on Dr. Osler’s rounds along with the young assistant physicians. They prepared for district nursing and private nursing as well as for working in hospital wards and surgical theaters. And they sewed their own uniforms: blue dress and cuffs, white apron, cap, and collar.
The Hopkins nursing program was modeled on the work of Florence Nightingale in Europe, particularly St. Thomas’s hospital in London, and the Bellevue Hospital training school in New York.
Ethel Johns and Blanche Pfefferkorn recount Dr. Billings’ recommendations for the Hopkins program’s organization. A picture arises of the nurse as a sort of magical Mary Poppins-like figure:
” ‘ Miss Nightingale’s views as to female nurses . . . are well known. By this school it is held that female nurses should be as far as possible, refined, educated women, fitted to move in good society–who should be thoroughly trained in everything pertaining to the management of the sick–from the washing of bedpans to the regulation of temperature and ventilation and the noting of symptoms for the physician–who should be good cooks and seamstresses–gentlewomen also, thoroughly kind-hearted, yet with firmness and decision, and power of control of unruly patients. They should know as much as the surgeon about the dressing of wounds and as much as the physician about the meaning of symptoms–yet they must have no tendency to become medical women or to set up their own opinions in practice. They must, of course, be of unspotted morals and chastity.’ “(Nursing, p. 13)
Although the work was so unrelenting that it broke some women’s health, according to the accounts of some early graduates, the nurses were happy. Their specially-built quarters were comfortable, airy and commodious, the food was simple but nourishing, and they were encouraged, as time allowed, to take advantage of the cultural opportunities of the city.
Fannie Toulmin’s pride and happiness shine clearly in her portrait, which may have been taken as a memento of graduation.
But of her previous life and subsequent career, little is known. The daughter of Alabaman US Army Captain Harry Toulmin (1819-1870) and Frances Priestley Biddle (1829-1916), Fannie Toulmin grew up in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, and, possibly, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where her brothers Priestley and Harry attended Lehigh University–Priestley, to become a mining engineer, and Harry, to prepare to enter the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school.
She and her brothers attended the Unitarian Antioch College’s high school in Yellow Spring, Ohio, during 1879-1880, but in her terse letter of application to the nursing program, she says she had a “public school education.”
On her father’s side she was descended from the great early federal judge Harry Toulmin (1766-1823), and on her mother’s from the scientist and Unitarian pioneer Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and from attorney James Biddle (1731-1797), an early Philadelphia settler who served with the Continental Army during the Revolution.
The Priestley and Toulmin families were not unknown to each other. Like Priestley, Judge Harry Toulmin was an early Unitarian leader, and had been a minister in England. Judge Toulmin’s sister, Lucinda Toulmin, was the second wife of Frances’ maternal great-grandfather, Joseph Priestley’s eldest son (G. H. Toulmin, A Catalogue of Toulmins, vol. 1, 1996, pp. 126-127).
Frances entered the Hopkins nursing program while her brother Harry was serving there as an intern, and one of her two letters of reference for the nursing program was written by Harry. But I have been able to find little about whether, or where, she worked as a nurse after completing her training.
The Johns Hopkins Chesney Medical Archives has a group photograph of the nurses on night duty during 1892 in which she appears (front row, far left), and it is possible that she stayed on at the hospital for some period of time after graduating.
While living in Baltimore, she attended First Unitarian Church, also known as Christ Church, Charles and Franklin streets; its pastor, Charles R. Weld, wrote Fannie’s second letter of reference for the nursing program. Rev. Weld describes her as “a teacher in one of my schools & highly esteemed for her efficiency, as well as for the graces of a Christian character.”
She does not reappear in any records I’ve found until 1910. In the 1910 census, she was listed, without employment, in the household of her now-married and well-established brother Harry in Haverford, Pa.
Harry, an avid golfer who ran track and played tennis at Lehigh University, had married Bertha Louise Townsend, the tennis champion daughter of well-to-do Philadelphia attorney Henry Clay Townsend. H.C. Townsend was founding counsel to the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company; Harry Toulmin rose to become Penn Mutual’s Resident Medical Director as well as a company vice-president.
While Harry and Bertha and their daughters, Marian and Frances, featured often in the Philadelphia society pages, and participated enthusiastically in Haverford’s exclusive Merion Cricket Club, Frances P. Toulmin appears but once in the Philadelphia Inquirer as a chaperone at an event for her neices.
In 1920, Frances was living on her own in an apartment on Montgomery Avenue in Bryn Mawr, near the college. An item in the nursing program’s alumnae association bulletin for 1925 says that she “has had to discontinue nursing. She is living at ‘Montgomery Inn’ Bryn Mawr, and when needed, ‘chaperoning’ at one of the Bryn Mawr Schools” (Johns Hopkins Nurses Alumnae Magazine, v. 24, n. 1, Feburary 1925). She died on the 25th of April 1928.
Another copy of this photograph is archived at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where Miss Toulmin’s portrait is part of a collection documenting the history of the JHU School of Nursing. Thanks to Marjorie W. Kehoe, Accessioning and Reference Archivist at the Chesney Archives, for her enthusiastic assistance with this research, including assistance in obtaining a copy of Miss Toulmin’s nursing school application.