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Steven PalmerSteven Palmer will discuss his research on the Metropolitan School of Nursing when he appears on CJAM at 4:30 p.m. today.

Dogged by scandal, school left positive mark on nursing profession

It was unfairly dragged into a local sex scandal back in its day, but a demonstration school established in Windsor during the middle of the last century broke new ground and became a model for nursing education in Canada, according to a university historian.

The Metropolitan School of Nursing was an experimental academy operated by the Canadian Nurses Association between 1948 and 1952, and it “both promoted and anticipated a university-based model of mass, professional nursing education in North America that was still decades away,” said Steven Palmer, a professor in history and Canada Research Chair in the history of international health.

“It was an international experiment that was very closely watched,” said Dr. Palmer, who will discuss his research today on a local radio talk show to mark the beginning of Nursing Week 2014, which runs May 12-18. “The Windsor model became the critical reference point.”

According to a recently published book chapter Palmer authored on the subject, the school was a feminist project, and an attempt to take nursing education out of the hands of hospitals, where conditions for students were less than ideal.

“The academic aspects were secondary,” he said of the days when hospital schools were the norm. “It was cheap labor for the hospital and drudgery for the students. Most of the menial work was done by the students.”

The school set out to prove that competent nurses could be trained in two years. Controlled by nurses, it provided all the curricula required for registration in Ontario, and emphasized the “social aspects of nursing,” Palmer said. It limited the amount of time spent on hospital wards, focusing more on classroom education and community time. Its aim, he said, was to provide nursing students with a greater sense of academic credibility, and attract more middle class young women to the profession.

However in February of 1949, four single nurses from Metropolitan Hospital attended a gala party at Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel as guests of Windsor Mayor and hospital board director Art Reaume, and hospital superintendent Horace Atkin. The incident became public due to rampant rumours about sexual antics at the party, and even though none of the nurses who went were students at the school, it still brought a great deal of negative publicity to it.

“It was guilt by association,” Palmer said, adding that the scandal undermined control of the hospital board for Reaume, who was an advocate for the school.

An inquiry was held, and although no evidence of sexual improprieties was found, the school’s impression was already made, Palmer said. Between 1955 and 1965, most hospital schools in Ontario adapted the Windsor model, a compromise in which schools of nursing were still under the control of hospitals, but functioning as independent academic units.

Palmer, who wrote a play based on the story which was staged by the university’s drama students in 2012, will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.

The chapter he wrote on the subject was published in The Routledge Handbook on the Global History of Nursing.

“This really puts Windsor on the emerging map of the global history of nursing,” Palmer said.