January 5, 2009

Isabel Hampton, First Superintendent of Nursing

On May 20, 1889, Elisa P. Perkins, former superintendent of Bellevue Training School for Nurses in New York City, sat down at a desk in her home on North Washington Street in Norwich, Conn., and wrote a five-page letter to Daniel Coit Gilman, who had just recently been pressed into service as director of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He also was president of the university.

She was responding to a letter from Gilman in which he had asked for her opinion of Isabel Adams Hampton, a candidate for superintendent of the new nursing school that was scheduled to open, along with the hospital, eight months later, in November 1889.

Gilman knew he needed to recruit an experienced nursing educator, someone whose leadership skills quickly would make Johns Hopkins the premier school of nursing in the country. He thought Isabel Hampton might be the right person for the job.

In her letter, neatly written on 5-by-7 stationery (and now on file in the Hamburger Archives of the Eisenhower Library), Perkins said that she knew Hampton “very well as she was two years with me at Bellevue, the first year taking the training in the various departments of the hospital and attending classes and lectures, the second year, as head nurse for six months in a medical ward, and six months over a surgical ward.”

She described Hampton as an “exceptionally intelligent, faithful, conscientious nurse and especially valuable when employed as head of a ward and trainer of probationers.”

After graduating with honors in 1883, Hampton had gone to Rome, where she worked for 18 months at the Home for Trained Nurses, mainly providing private nursing to patients. Perkins wrote that Hampton had “studied Latin, French and German before she came to our school.” She said that most people did not think “the advantages of culture and the study of languages” were important for nurses, but she believed otherwise. “After extensive observation,” she said, “such nurses are most valuable and acceptable in private service and, for a Superintendent of a nursing school, superior education and cultivation are essential qualifications.”

Saying that no recommendation is complete “without mentioning the faults” of a candidate, Perkins said that while Hampton had “warm friends among her classmates, she was not popular” (a point Gilman underlined with his pencil) and “was thought reserved and exclusive.” She added, “I should say she might err in over strictness.”

She told Gilman that she had hoped that one of Bellevue’s graduates would become the “head of the Johns Hopkins School, and of all those who have applied for it, I consider Miss Hampton best fitted for the position.” Prior to coming to Johns Hopkins, Isabel Hampton was superintendent of the Cooke County Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago from 1886 to 1889.

Gilman’s faith in her abilities and Perkins’ strong endorsement were proved quickly in Baltimore.

Hampton extended the Johns Hopkins program from two to three years. She instituted eight- hour workdays. She established the Alumnae Association and created a Nurses Journal Club (and was a founder of the American Journal of Nursing). She organized a group of nursing school superintendents from around the nation that would later become the National League for Nursing, and was president of that organization in 1909. She also was the first president of Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, now the American Nurses Association.

In 1894 she moved to Cleveland after marrying Hunter Robb, who was professor of gynecology at Case Western Reserve University, and had two sons. She helped lay the groundwork for the first school of nursing at Case Western, and she wrote three major nursing textbooks. At age 50, she was struck by a trolley in Cleveland and died.

The Hampton House building on the East Baltimore campus, originally a dormitory for nursing students, memorializes her contributions to Johns Hopkins and the field of nursing education.