Nursing School (1890 - 1896)

A Changing Career Landscape

By the 1890s, when Klehm was in her early twenties, bolder women of her age were setting their sights on all professions, including those traditionally regarded as masculine in nature. Journalism...photography...architecture..why not? Enthusiasm spread, ambition spurred action, and by mid-decade, there were women all over America scrambling to qualify themselves for the career tracks of journalist Marian Shaw or Sophia Hayden, the Boston architect who had designed the women’s building for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.

Nursing was another popular choice, as would-be Florence Nightingales felt they might as well be paid for the nurturing they had always done anyway. Dazzled by the prospect of earning a living for themselvees, eager future nurses all over the country applied to training schools opening to accommodate them. Little did they realize that their most important attribute would not be their compassion for the sic, but the stamina necessary to see them through long, long stretches of duty and study.


Nurse A. Louise Klehm's Nursing School Class Photograph, 1896

Nurse A. Louise Klehm's Nursing School Class Photograph, 1896

A. Louise Klehm Enters Nursing School

In 1893, A. Louise Klehm signed up for training at Chicago Baptist HospitalResilience and patience were necessary during the months of bed making and bandage laundering that constituted the probationary period before she was accepted into the program. Then, having proved herself conscientious enough for admission, it was a test of will and strength to stay awake through the following two years of twelve-hour nights and twelve-hour days, all crammed to exhaustion level by lectures she had to attend when things were quiet on the ward. Classes on cooking for invalids, would care, massage, and blanket-bathing led to even more work, this time consisting of study sessions from textbooks paid for out of an allowance provided by the hospital.

Like her colleagues, Klehm invested every inch of her staying power, believing that her eventual reward would be a predictably thirsty job market. To a large extent this was true, for thanks to British surgeon Joseph Lister and his insistence on post-surgical antisepsis, American hospitals had lost their reputation as filthy dumping grounds for the homeless poor, and were now scrubbed and sterile places so popular with patients that their number would soar from fewer than 200 in 1873 to more than 4,000 in 1910.

At a Crossroads

Yet these burgeoning hospitals were no great money-spinner for nurses, as Klehm discovered in 1896, when she was offered a post-graduate position as Assistant Head of Nursing by the hospital where she had trained. The job description covered supervision of both student nurses and patient care, but the salary deemed suitable by hospital budget-planning logic was scarcely more than she had received as a student--it was certainly not enough money to support her in comfort. Dismayed by this financial hitch, Klehm turned to a second job offer, this time inviting her to become an assistant to a physician in Minneapolis. This prospect thrilled her no more than the first, since she would have to move from Chicago.

What to do? Which compromise to make? As she had often done before, she turned to her father for advice. George Klehm did not let her down. He considered this dilemma carefully, then on the offical notepaper of his store, he wrote her a detailed reply on September 18, 1896:

Letter from George C. Klehm to Amelia Louise Klehm, 1896

Letter from George C. Klehm to Amelia Louise Klehm

“The position of nurse for some eminent physician, would perhaps be all right, but...this doctor is at Minneapolis,” wrote George Klehm. His daughter Louise may have been 26 years old, but he was not about to trust her to an unknown stranger, physician or no physician. Without actually forbidding her to accept the out-of-town post, he made his position clear.

“It would be rather dangerous to trust your fate to a strange man in a strange city, away from all relatives, and before you make a move in that direction, you should have positive evidence as regards the moral character and standing of this physician.”

Next, George Klehm considered the Baptist Hospital post. He understood his daughter’s lack of enthusiasm about the tiny salary--after all, having long since remarried and fathered a second six-strong family, he knew the importance of financial security. Still, he felt that the hospital job would be the more secure choice. Louise took his advice, but could hardly foresee that she would be on the move again before two years were up.


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