Grace Phelps, R.N.: a Reverie in Sepia

The Early years

Grace Phelps was born on September 5, 1871 in Indiana, a middle child in the midst of ten siblings. She grew up in a small village north of the capital called Westfield. Her parents were among the early pioneers of the mid-West who settled in Indiana; they practiced the tenets of the Religious Society of Friends and brought up their children accordingly. While the Spanish-American War was waging, Grace enrolled in the Cincinnati General Hospital engaged in the study of  nursing. As the Spanish forces in the Philippines surrendered to the U.S., Grace graduated in June of 1900 becoming one of Indiana’s earliest registered nurses.

From 1900-1905 she did private duty nursing in Indiana, making $25.00/week. In those days a nurse would work all hours of the day doing more than what is generally thought of as nurse’s work; Grace was hired to nurse and to cook and scrub, as well, she would do the laundry and care for any children that might belong to the family who hired her.

From 1905-1908, she worked as the superintendent and chief cook and bottle washer for the Eleanor Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. This was a sincere endeavor by the Fruit and Flower Mission to provide care for the sick and injured children of the indigent in the city. Grace was the only staff and not only cared for the children, but cleaned and cooked in an old run down residence, which provided little but shelter. Unfortunately, it soon closed for lack of funds and very little public interest.

Grace moved to Portland in 1909 with most of her family close on her heels. Her first job was as anesthetist and office nurse for Dr. Charles T. Chamberlain, a practicing otolaryngologist in town. She stayed on for five years in this position until she left to take a course in hospital administration in San Francisco. Upon completion of the course, she returned to Portland and accepted the position of superintendent of nurses at the Multnomah County Hospital in 1915. At the time, the hospital was situated on 2nd Avenue and Hooker Street in a stately Victorian structure; the student nurses, it was said, were called the “Hooker Girls”. (In 1921, the hospital moved to the Marquam Hill campus of the University of Oregon Medical School.) Grace continued in this capacity until the war intervened and Grace reported that “all efforts to develop the department of nursing education in the University of Oregon [Medical School] for the duration of the war were dropped”.

After the outbreak of WWI, Grace joined in the efforts of the Portland Chapter of the American Red Cross as charge nurse in 1917. Her charge was to recruit and organize the nursing personnel for Base Hospital 46 that would soon be deployed to Bazoille sur Meuse, France. This unit was organized first by the Red Cross but was taken over by UOMS as the US Army commanded medical schools to organize personnel to man the Base Hospitals overseas. Physicians from UOMS were also deployed as officers and enlisted medical personnel to work alongside the nurses. Located behind the front lines, BH 46 received the wounded and sick that had been worked back from the front lines through the first aid stations and the field and evacuation hospitals. The nurses were 100 strong and commanded by Captain Phelps. At the time Grace was enlisted into the Army as chief nurse, and served with the unit in France, she was 46 years old (1917-1918).

War was disheartening drudgery for Grace. “War is hell”, she writes in a rare letter home, “I believe that expression is quoted more often than any other just now. Somewhat fitting. I would like to be able to carry a gun and wade into the real thing. The shades of my forefathers may not like that wish but -”. Grace found a way to serve her country without shouldering a musket by serving to help relieve suffering. Grace’s caption on the back of a somber black and white photograph of a graveyard filled with white crosses conveys her feelings about the death of so many soldiers: “Where nearly 1000 of our men are buried here. At one time taps sounded so often during the day that I felt like I have seen dogs act when they heard music – I wanted to wail”.

Furloughs and camp dances helped in a small way to alleviate the horrors she experienced firsthand. In the same letter home she wrote, “I wish I could tell you of the many interesting things along the road… France is beautiful and looks as tho [sic] it might have been planned and executed by an expert landscape gardener.” In 1919 she was discharged and returned to Portland and immediately took the position of executive director of the Portland Chapter of the Red Cross.

In 1920, Grace accepted the opportunity to supervise the Portland, Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. The hospital operated as a private business in the former Nisbeth’s Sanatorium at 6th Avenue and Lovejoy Street until 1926. Here she joined her former employer, Dr. Chamberlain, and other prominent Portland physicians.

Years at the University of Oregon Medical School, Doernbecher Memorial Hospital for Children

In1926, as the newly established Doernbecher Memorial Hospital for Children was preparing to open, Grace was offered a position as supervisor of equipment and, as well, to organize the nursing staff. When it opened on January 19th of that year, she became the superintendent and served in that capacity for 17 years. Her beginning salary was $250.00 a month. A news article written on December, 23, 1927 titled, “Castle on Marquam Hill is Fairyland for Sick Children” describes the unique characteristics of the only children’s hospital in the State. “Doernbecher, the article reads, “cares alike for those who can and those who cannot pay and also serves as a teaching hospital for physicians and nurses alike”. Miss Phelps was a part of its establishment from its inception. She took up residence there, was on call 24 hours a day, and even in her absence, made herself available by telephone or telegraph.

Those who knew Grace said that she had a fine sense of humor and even found delight in jokes at her own expense. She was known for her kindness and compassion and found time in her busy schedule to throw private suppers at the outdoor fireplace on the Medical School grounds. She never shirked hard work and took on jobs that required the expenditure of her own funds. She was involved with numerous organizations, and took a leadership role in many. She belonged to the Nurses Association, the League of Nursing Education, National Organization – Public Health Nursing, and the Red Cross; she also held office in many other clubs and organizations, not directly affiliated with the medical field, such as the Social Workers Association, the Community Chest, the YWCA, the American Legion and the Oregon Federation of Women’s’ clubs, the Soroptimist Club and the Social Welfare of the Portland Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Miss Phelps strove always to elevate nursing standards in Oregon. She was ambitious, working to improve education and working conditions for graduate nurses. A master of narrative, she took advantage of every opportunity to speak to education and practice in her many positions on various boards and committees. To name only a few, she served as of the President Oregon State Board of Examinations and Registration of Graduate Nurses 1922-1930; she was a member of the Board of Directors and chairman of the By-Laws Committee of the Oregon State Graduate Nursing Association and Secretary of the Western Hospital Association, 1928-1930; as well, she was chairman of the Nominating committee ~ American Nurses Association 1928-1930. During the years of 1920-1930 she maintained a membership with the Executive Committee and was also Chairman of the Home Hygiene and Care of the Sick Committee and served with the Portland Chapter of the American Red Cross; from 1929-1930 she served as Vice President of the Portland Unit of the Women’s Overseas Service League; and finally in 1929 she began her service as the President of the Medical Dental Nurses Surgeries Incorporated.

Grace, as a writer and spokesperson, strove to bring an historical perspective to all that she authored. Among her publications, she wrote Some Fundamental Principles of Organization, Purposes and Values ~ while she was superintendent of Doernbecher. In another publication, titled Uniform Nursing Laws, she discusses the wide variance of statutes between states and the difficulty of standardization. Grace felt that there would be benefits to standardization for nursing education and examination but held that amendments would of necessity be continuous and that the laws would soon cease to be uniform and once again would be highly variant. Grace was an outspoken advocate for medical care for children; she made a plea in a presentation titled, Hospitals for Children in the Pacific Northwest, for aid for hospitals specifically designed to take care of the needs of children. She makes the point that general hospitals generally care for adults. Since there are so few children’s hospitals, they have long waiting lists and care for only the most serious cases. She stressed that it is impossible to do preventive work, emphasizing that children have special needs. In an interview on television with KGW, Grace talked about pediatric tuberculosis treatment. At the time, she was the superintendent of the Doernbecher Memorial Children’s Hospital and a member of the department of public welfare of the Portland Federation of Women’s Organizations. She was pushing funding for the idea of Christmas seals to aid in the endeavor to treat and cure children afflicted with the disease.

All who knew Grace knew that she had always had a strong constitution and energy to spare. She spent her time well and without fatigue in service to others. In 1951, she decided to go home to Indiana to visit her last remaining siblings, her brother who was 81 and a sister who had celebrated her 91st birthday. She fell ill while there and asked to be taken home to the Veteran’s Hospital in Portland. She had helped to initiate the formation of the hospital and wished to be admitted there for her care. The hospital was located in the old Hahnemann building and the family brought her there. She was ill, but her condition was a “non-service connected disability”, but the hospital admitted her regardless. She spent her final days surrounded by friends and nurses that had been taught by her and who had worked alongside her. She even had visits from some that she had served with in France during the war. She held on to life. “She did not want to go; there were things she still wanted to do.” But she succumbed on June 19, 1952 at the age of 81.

In 1982, thirty years after her death, she was honored by the Portland Chapter of the Oregon Lung Association in a brochure titled, “Women in the History of Oregon”.  KGW honored her as “Personality of the Day” in1943 and she was also honored in the Who’s Who in the Nursing World. Vol. XXVII. No.2.

Grace Phelps was a nurse’s nurse, an exemplary model to all nurses who served under her tutelage and supervision and to all nurses who have come after and continue to benefit from the dedicated hard work it took to lay the foundation upon which nursing education and practice now rest.

“Education really is our salvation – educating ourselves and the people who we serve”

                                                                                                                           Grace Phelps ~ 1928


OHSU Historical Collections & Archives: Grace Phelps Papers 2010-005

Biographical profile by Silvanus Kingsley requested by the American National Red Cross in 1958 for the 50th anniversary of the American Red Cross Nursing Services.

Gaines, Barbara Conway, History of the School: 1910-1996; 2002