Rebecca Sealy led the Board of Lady Managers who raised funds to operate the nursing school until it became part of the University of Texas.

The history of the School of Nursing at UTMB is a window on the history of nursing education in this country.


Opening in March 1890 as the privately operated John Sealy Hospital Training School for Nurses, it was the first school of nursing in Texas. In 1896 the school came under the umbrella of the University of Texas. According to the late UTMB chronicler Dr. Chester R. Burns, it then became “the first American nursing school directly affiliated with a state university.”


“When the school started, nursing was still struggling for appropriate recognition as a profession,” said Pamela G. Watson, dean of the UTMB School of Nursing. “In the 19th century, most women did not work. Those who did were doubtful about the value of pursuing nursing as an occupation.”


Among the circumstances that contributed to establishment of the school was the opening of John Sealy Hospital in January 1890 and a hip injury to a niece of George and Magnolia Sealy.


The young girl, Ella Goldthwaite, was taken to New York for medical treatment. When the Sealys returned to Galveston Island, they brought with them a professional nurse, Dorothea Fick, to provide care to Ella as her private nurse. Fick accompanied the Sealys because there were no professional nurses on Galveston Island.


Fick had received training at the Mount Sinai Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York. Sadly, Ella died within a year of her return. Yet prominent Galveston women encouraged Fick to remain and serve as the first director of the John Sealy Training School for Nurses. These women were known as the Board of Lady Managers. Their leader was Rebecca Sealy, the widow of John Sealy, who had left money in his will “for charitable purposes.” The Sealys donated the money to the city to build a hospital. The Lady Managers then raised funds to operate the nursing school until it became part of the University of Texas. Of the 10 women who enrolled in the school’s inaugural class in March 1890, six graduated in 1892.


Nursing education in Galveston has come a long way since. The school graduated more than 280 nurses in 2009 and has ambitious plans for the future, targeting a graduating class of 500 by 2020. More than 5,000 nurses have graduated from the school.


“When the School of Nursing started 120 years ago, it was expected to train nurses for John Sealy Hospital,” Watson said. “For a long time, students from the school were considered to be ‘the hospital’s nurses,’ but that changed over time. Now, we’re educating nurses not only for UTMB but for the state, the nation and the world.”


In addition to its traditional mission of educating nurses, the School of Nursing has progressively expanded its master’s and doctoral programs to address the shortage of faculty and nurse scientists.


“The shortage of faculty is a major impediment to meeting the demand for nurses,” Watson said. “We turn away many qualified students who want to become nurses simply because we don’t have enough faculty. The people we seek as faculty have advanced degrees and are valued highly by hospitals as administrators and nurse managers. To some extent, we’re in competition with the very organizations we are trying to serve.”


Originally focused on education, the school’s mission has expanded to include biobehavioral research and a partnership with St. Vincent’s House to operate a nurse-managed health clinic for uninsured residents in Galveston. Biobehavioral research looks at relationships among psychosocial, behavioral and biological processes.


Research done by nurses often focuses on improving patient outcomes with the goal to bring what’s learned in the laboratory to the patient bedside. Through the Center for Nursing Research and Evaluation, established in 2007, the school’s research faculty investigate such issues as childhood obesity prevention, growth of very low birth weight infants and acupuncture as a means to reduce stress in coronary heart disease patients.


Responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, nurse-scientists started an investigation of the effect of stress and coping on the mental and physical health of students, faculty and staff using biobehavioral indicators.


The nurse-managed clinic at St. Vincent’s is as much a laboratory as it is a health care setting. Its purpose is to divert uninsured people who are chronically ill from expensive treatment in emergency rooms to a more appropriate and effective medical home at the clinic. An emergency room is designed to treat people with acute conditions, not chronic illnesses.


Each avoidable admission to the ER saves an average of about $12,000. Not only do these patients receive appropriate care at much lower cost, their health status benefits from having a medical home. Lessons learned from this clinic may one day help hospitals and communities across the country find a better way to take care of the uninsured.


“Nurses are the heart of health care delivery in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and wherever there are patients,” Watson said. “We’ve come a long way over the years but, as we’ve seen in the national health care debate, we have a long way to go. Schools of nursing are in the front line because nothing happens in health care without nurses.”