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Desert Nightingale: Louise Dietrich
Article first published in Vol. 27, 2009.
By Julie Ferguson, Travis Gutierrez, Stephanie Limas, Astrid Burke and Natalie Marquez
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On October 2, 1902, a train carrying the great showman Buffalo Bill arrived in El Paso. On that same train was a young nurse heading to California from New York. Intending nothing more than a brief stop to visit a friend, she walked out into a rainstorm, and with her footsteps came a herald of change for the nursing and medical profession, in the city, in the state and in the nation.
A. Louise Dietrich entered the world on Nov. 17, 1878, in the small farming community of Ossining, N. Y. As one of the 11children born to Valentine and Mary Dietrich, she knew early that service to others was her life’s calling. After completing her early education in Ossining, she enrolled in the nursing program at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, N. Y., completing her degree in 1899.
After graduation, Dietrich trained at Sloan Maternity Hospital in New York City. She then began private duty nursing with esteemed pediatrician Dr. Emmett Holt, president and charter member of the American Pediatric Society, as well as several of his associates.
In 1902, Dietrich and her friend Emily Dana Greene, also a nurse, took a trip out West to California. They planned a short visit en route with a mutual friend in El Paso. Not only did they arrive during a torrential downpour, but typhoid fever was raging, too, and their friend was very ill. The two women decided to stay for a while.
Although the railroad brought many advances to the Southwest, medical care was slow in coming. According to Russell Van Norman, author of Medical Facilities of El Paso, it wasn’t until 1892 that El Paso’s first hospital was founded, St. Mary’s Hospital of the Sisters of Charity. In 1894, Hotel Dieu opened with 80 patient rooms, a chapel and an operating room. Still, care for the sick was primarily limited to tent cities and private residences.
While facilities were lacking, nurses were even more so. At the time of Dietrich’s arrival, there were only five graduate nurses in the area. With the imminent opening of Dr. M. P. Schuster’s Providence Hospital, trained medical professionals were in demand.
In January of 1903, Dietrich became Providence Hospital’s Superintendent of Nurses. Dr. Schuster also put the hospital’s nurse training program under her care. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, it was during this time that Dietrich established the El Paso Graduate Nurses Association, along with a registry, both of which were the first of their kind in the state.
When the superintendent of Providence Hospital resigned, Dietrich took over the position in 1903. There she remained until 1906; it was finally time to continue her trip to California.
After a visit to the far West, Dietrich traveled to Missouri, where she acted as the superintendent for St. Louis Skin and Cancer Hospital. Then she returned to New York and completed some post-graduate work.
With a heart as big as Texas, Dietrich returned to El Paso in 1908 and opened St. Mark’s Hospital, located on the corner of Nevada Avenue and Ange Street. Specializing in pediatrics, St. Mark’s boasted that it was one of the most modern hospitals in the Southwest. Registered nurses staffed the hospital which had an operating room equipped with new furniture and sterilizers. St. Mark’s remained open with Dietrich as superintendent until 1916.
Always a trailblazer, Dietrich often saddled up her horse and rode out to tuberculosis camps in the Highland Park area. In 1909, after one month of caring for these patients, she persuaded 20 men to pledge funding for one of the first public health services in El Paso.
Dietrich discovered that the infant mortality rate in El Paso was one of the highest in the country, especially in the summer months. Babies suffered from “summer complaint,” which was a fancy name for dehydration and diarrhea. In response, a physician established a baby sanitarium in Cloudcroft, N. M. in 1910. Dietrich, along with Emily Greene, alternated summers as superintendent of the sanitarium. In an article written for The American Journal of Nursing, Dietrich described how the babies not only survived but thrived in the air “that God meant people to breathe.”
From the very beginning of her nursing career, Dietrich realized the importance of educated nursing professionals and was one of the nation’s leading advocates for medical legislation. As president of the El Paso Graduate Nurses Association, Dietrich attended the second meeting of the Texas Graduate Nurses Association (TGNA) that took place in San Antonio in 1908. According to Women Pioneers in Texas Medicine, it was at this meeting that Dietrich was appointed to represent the organization in San Francisco for the National Associated Alumnae meeting, a forerunner of the American Nurses Association. At this meeting Dietrich secured membership of the TGNA into the association.
The TGNA’s main objective was to gain legislation requiring the registration of nurses in Texas. That goal was realized in March of 1909 when the state passed the Nurse-Licensing Law. While that was a victory, the law had no provisions for inspecting or accrediting schools. In 1921, Dietrich was appointed the group’s legislative chairman. The TGNA then initiated a study of how schools should be monitored, and in 1923 the Nurse Practice Act provided for a board of nurse examiners and an educational secretary who would visit and evaluate schools once a year.
Dietrich accepted the position of the state’s first educational secretary, and in one year, she traveled more than 13,000 miles and wrote 780 letters, all without secretarial help. Dietrich continued her position with the state until 1928.
In 1917 at the TGNA’s eleventh meeting, Dietrich discussed Red Cross work in San Antonio and El Paso, such as the establishment of Red Cross nursing centers and the need for increasing enrollment among nurses so as to be ready for demands to be made on them by war. During both world wars, Dietrich played an important role in recruiting and training nurses for the American Red Cross. In an El Paso Times article dated Sept. 28, 1954, Dietrich stated her only life regret was not serving in the Armed Forces, and her greatest honor came when she was awarded a silver star with the title of “Unofficial General of the 4th Army Nurse Corps” in 1951.
Prior to becoming the educational secretary, Dietrich had served the TGNA in numerous capacities. She was secretary-treasurer, the first vice-president, president, chairman of the Red Cross Nursing Service Committee, and council member. In 1929, after retiring from her position as educational secretary, Dietrich returned to the TGNA and served as their full-time general secretary, with headquarters here in El Paso, until 1955.
In 1931, Dietrich was charged with writing the history of the first 25 years of the Texas Graduate Nurses Association. She recorded that in 1911, El Paso hosted the fifth meeting of the group at the Parish House of St. Clement’s Church. The 30 members, traveling long distances from central and eastern Texas, were taken to Cloudcroft by an El Paso & Southwestern Railroad excursion train to visit the Baby Sanitarium and tour the newly rebuilt Lodge. The railroad and residents of Cloudcroft provided meals for the nurses.
So successful was this meeting that the organization resolved that “no city in the future try to surpass El Paso in its entertaining and meetings.” In 1919, nurses returned to El Paso for their annual meeting. Once again, the attendees enjoyed the hospitality of the far West Texas city. El Paso nurses paid the housing and food expenses for all 90 members who only had to pay their travel costs.
Nationally, Dietrich served as chairman of the legislation section of the American Nurses Association, and as a board member for eight years. She was also a member of the board of directors for the League of Nursing Education.
Dietrich wasn’t just active in the medical community, though. She was a devout member of the Episcopal Church, St. Alban’s Parish, and accredited her success to living the Christian religion and using common sense and justice. She also was active with the Texas League of Women Voters, and she was a member of the Parent Teachers Association.
After 60 years of serving others and fulfilling her life’s dream, Dietrich died on Jan. 22, 1962. The following February, the El Paso Herald-Post ran a column in which retired executive of the National Nurses Association, Janet Geister, wrote a letter to honor one of the greatest medical advocates of the 20th century. Geister stated that although she and Dietrich didn’t always agree, “She [Dietrich] had a singular and powerful courage in standing by her convictions.”
The Texas House of Representatives 57th Legislature honored Dietrich by passing a resolution which stated that she had done almost as much as her distinguished predecessor, Florence Nightingale, with her service to the medical profession.
Dietrich was memorialized at St. Alban’s with a likeness of her nursing cap and training-school pin placed into stained glass called Resurrection Window dedicated by her long-time friend, Homosiella Moss. (see El Paso Herald-Post article 22 Feb 1963 page 3) And for those young women that want to follow in her footsteps, the Louise Dietrich Fellowship Fund continues to provide a means to pay for school, so that the “Nightingale’s” song is still heard in the Southwest.