Public Health Nursing 1950-1979


This page has been automatically translated from English. MSDH has not reviewed this translation and is not responsible for any inaccuracies.

1950-1959: The Growth and Transition of Public Health Nursing

The 1950's began with great prosperity and many social and economic changes nationally and within the state. Mississippi was experiencing population migration both out of state, which had begun during the war years, and of migration of farm populations to towns and cities within the state. The mechanical cotton picker had arrived as well as a whole array of sophisticated machinery. Small farms disappeared; even larger farm operations expanded. A well educated farm manager, a few skilled machine operators, and an airplane pilot could produce better and more cotton than 140 field hands, according to McLemore's History of Mississippi. A great industrial expansion spurred by the agricultural revolution in the 50's provided jobs and opportunities throughout the state.

Federal funding had been made available through the Hospital and Reconstruction Act in 1946, also known as the Hill-Burton Act, for construction of health care facilities. The Mississippi Board of Health accessed these funds to build county health departments and branch clinics. Newly constructed facilities would improve both the access and the quality of care being rendered by public health nurses throughout the state. Still, a few counties had no organized county health departments.

While more active professional nurses and more students in schools existed by the early 1950's than any previous time, the increase in numbers and caliber of nurses had not kept pace with the need for service. A 1952 report on the status of nursing in Mississippi compared one active registered nurse per 634 persons in the nation to one active registered nurse per 1,629 persons in the state, a nurse- to-population ratio of less than one-half the national average. The national ratio was not considered ideal according to the report and confirmed the serious situation in the state for nursing personnel. The inadequate number of schools and the lack of a baccalaureate school of nursing within the state were factors that needed attention.

Each decade seemed to bring ever more and new challenges to public health nursing. Louise Holmes, having assumed the role as Director of Public Health Nursing, was faced with recruitment and placement of qualified nurses throughout the state. Holmes reported on the critical nature of the early 1950's in a 1955 position paper, "Review of Changes, Problems, and Needs of Public Health Nursing." Though few more total nursing positions existed, the turnover of nursing personnel along with the increased demand for nursing services was a major problem for delivery of care and services, she reported. The war emergency nurse classification was discontinued. Some nurses returned from military duty, and a few returning servicemen brought back wives who were nurses, several who were eager to do public health nursing. Orientation centers had been discontinued by this time as nurses could no longer leave their homes and families for extended periods. The orientation process was restructured. The orientation manual was revised with the Field Advisory Nurses and the senior staff nurses assuming the responsibility of orienting new nurses.

Education for public health nurses continued to be a priority as well to ensure competency of all public health nurses. Early on, Holmes was able to send eleven nurses for a short course in the care of the premature infant and two nurses for courses in supervision of public health nursing. Seven carefully selected nurses received scholarship assistance to attend Peabody College and Vanderbilt University for public health nursing study. Nine nurses took the National League for Nursing Achievement test which qualified them to meet Merit System Classification of Public Health Nurse I. Other nurses attended conferences on venereal disease nursing, obstetrical nursing, child health nursing, group leadership, and mental health.

In 1950, the Crippled Children's Service began to broaden its scope of services to include heart disease. This included a whole range of cardiac treatment from the correction of congenital heart defects to long term prophylactic treatment of rheumatic heart disease. Public health nurses responded to these services as many children were in need of this specialized service. At times, these children needed immediate referral to a hospital in Memphis, Jackson, or Mobile. More often mobile screening and follow-up clinics, established in the late 1940's and held quarterly in strategic locations of the state, were the referral source for the nurse. In preparation for the heart consultation, the public health nurse did preliminary testing which included a chest x-ray, blood work, and a cardiogram.

The regional clinics continued through the 1970's, being discontinued in the early 1980's when a reconstructing of Title V of the Social Security Act (PL-77-35) grants expanded and improved access to care for infants and children.

Disaster did strike Mississippi again in the early 1950's. The most virulent and widespread polio epidemic hit the state between 1951-1952 with about 1,450 cases diagnosed in the two-year period. Pregnant women were more vulnerable and the bulbar type more prevalent than ever.

One pregnant public health nurse was stricken. After delivering a healthy full-term baby, she fortunately recovered and she later successfully returned to public health nursing though residual disabilities were evident. These devastating outbreaks of crippling disease intensified the follow-up and rehabilitation services provided by local public health nurses and by the quarterly mobile Regional Crippled Children's Clinics that had previously been established. These were great days for the families, patients, and public health nurses who received guidance and support from specialized nurses, physical therapists, brace technicians, and physicians who manned these clinics. Women's clubs usually assisted with registration and snacks for children. Public health nurses never missed a chance to promote good nutrition and to involve civic and community organizations.

Due to the severity of the polio epidemic in Sunflower County as reported by the Biennial Report of the State Board of Health, 1951-1953, the Centers for Disease Control arranged for six nurses to receive epidemiology training.

By 1955, the injectable Salk polio vaccine became available, and mass immunization efforts began to reduce this dreaded disease. Disposable syringes and needles were not yet available; so needles and syringes had to be sterilized for reuse. Nurses carried the large Brown Bag and its paraphernalia to each immunization site, providing her means to complete her mission. Gratefully, another predicted epidemic did not occur. Salk vaccine and Herculean efforts to reach every child paid off!

Tuberculosis remained a major health threat during this period. By the early 1950's, streptomycin, para-aminosalicylic acid, and isoniazid provided effective treatment. Active tuberculosis cases, often sent away from home to the Sanatorium, could now be treated at home under the care of public health nurses. Mobile x-ray units had been activated in the late 1940's to improve diagnostic services and access to care. Public health nurses were vital to the tuberculosis control efforts in their communities by determining contacts to cases of tuberculosis and coordinating diagnostic tests for contacts and cases. Due to limited medical coverage, treatment plans were established for the public health nurse and patient through medical case conferences. Public health nurses sought community resources such as Sunday School classes, the Tuberculosis Association, and civic organizations to provide financial assistance to patients in need of medications and other medical care. Often times, with no other resources available, public health nurses used personal funds to assist in accessing needed care for tuberculosis patients. Vital statistics reported that tuberculosis was no longer one of the top ten leading causes of death in Mississippi in 1957. The mission to improve morbidity and mortality was being met.

The infant mortality rate declined from 54.5 in 1940 to 36.4 in 1950. Significant contributions in lowering the mortality rates included the increased availability of local hospitals resulting in more physician-attended deliveries and the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care Program initiated in the early 40's. While great strides had been made in lowering maternal and infant mortality, public health recognized the need to continue intensified efforts to provide prenatal care and to supervise the midwives. Statistics identified greater declines in mortality for white births than black births.

In 1955, some 1,614 midwives continued to practice, attending thirty percent of the births in the state. Improved access to medical care, transportation, education, and standards of living supported the discontinued need for midwife services. The Midwife Program had always been one of supervision rather than promotion. Public health nurses continued to hold monthly educational meetings with the midwives, who frequently assisted the public health nurses in clinic activities, home visits, and in the provision of care to mothers and babies. In addition, public health nurses participated in the annual county midwife meeting, a grand event and celebration where the annual permits to practice were issued.

The major syphilis case-finding project initiated through public health nursing services in the late 1940's identified congenital syphilis as a major contributor to the high incidence of infant morbidity and mortality. In 1950, the Children's Bureau and the U.S.P.H.S. in conjunction with the Mississippi Board of Health conducted a one-year congenital syphilis research study in Washington and Sunflower counties, chosen because of the high syphilis case rates in the locations.

This study proved that if a mother received adequate treatment during pregnancy, even as late as the third trimester, the outcome was a healthy baby. The Mississippi Board of Health and its public health nursing staff attracted national attention for this study. The U.S.P.H.S. utilized Mississippi as a nine-week field training program to educate nurses in the field of epidemiology and venereal disease treatment and control during this research period.

Not until 1954 could Mississippi claim an established county health department in all eighty-two counties with at least one full-time public health nurse serving each county. Accomplishment of this vision had been a long time in the making and now all citizens found greater opportunity for improved health care.

The acute nursing shortage in the state was finally being addressed by the mid 50's, as well as a focus on the availability of higher education for nursing. In 1948, organized nursing had pushed for passage of legislation to appropriate funding for the establishment of a Department of Nursing at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The baccalaureate program accepted students in 1949 and would be the first nursing program in the state to provide basic concepts of public health nursing. The School of Nursing was relocated to the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus in 1956. Other baccalaureate programs followed, allowing for the preparation of public health nursing at the level recommended by the National League For Nursing.

Another significant event occurred on April 11-12, 1957, when the Mississippi League For Nursing and the Mississippi Association of Student Nurses sponsored a two-day conference on "The Role of the Junior Colleges in Nursing Education." Dr. Mildred Montage from Teacher's College, Columbia University, the guest speaker, provided overviews for the establishment of nursing schools within the statewide community college network. Presidents from every junior college in Mississippi and many hospital administrators attended the conference. Shortly thereafter, the first community college program for nursing opened at Northeast Junior College in Booneville. The impact of these nursing education programs through the 1950's marked a water-shed effect on nursing education, nursing practice, and the availability of nursing personnel (Keyes, 1984).

By the mid 1950's, 223 public health nursing positions were budgeted. The increased number of nursing positions also raised the issue of adequate nursing supervision for staff nurses to assure quality and efficient services.

Holmes cited staff development as an essential component of assuring quality public health nursing services. Edna Roberts, Field Advisory Nurse in the northern part of the state during this time, proposed in 1948 that regular in-service education be implemented. This proposal was well received and by the 1950's in-service education was well established, consisting of eleven two-hour monthly district meetings over the state within each year. The average attendance per nurse was eight sessions per year, equating to two working days per year. The Field Advisory Nurses carried out these educational programs with assistance from selected resources. These efforts strengthened and facilitated the expansion of all public health programs.

These educational opportunities proved effective and strengthened the nursing abilities of both new and veteran nurses.

Pauline O'Keefe, R.N., accepted a staff public health nursing position in Coahoma County in 1958 following several years of experience in military and private duty nursing. O'Keefe related the uniqueness of public health nursing interventions to meet public health goals in an oral account as follows:

"Coahoma County was large with eight public health nurses, each assigned districts within the county to hold clinics, to home visit, and to develop community relationships. Roundaway was a rural farming community and consisted largely of poor farm laborers. Clotee Hill was the community midwife, who had practiced in the area since the 1930's. She knew most everyone in the community and was a leader within the county midwife group. Hill assisted at the weekly clinic at Roundaway and often home visited with me as she was first to know who was expecting, who had delivered, and who in the community was ill. Hill convinced a young woman named Freddie to come to the weekly clinic. Freddie, in her early 20's, was in her fourth pregnancy and her three children were less than school age. Her medical history revealed she had been born with congenital syphilis and received treatment at a rapid treatment center in the 1940's. Complicating physical and social factors from the congenital syphilis were evident, however. Hill had already discussed family planning with the patient, who then asked me how to help her not to have anymore babies.

"I made arrangements with a local obstetrician to evaluate her and he agreed to a hospital delivery and to perform a tubal ligation at no charge to the patient. All of the doctors in the community helped when indigent care was needed. Hill assisted the patient in getting to the hospital at the onset of labor. About 10 the morning of the delivery, the physician called me and told me he had delivered a healthy baby but he could not tie her tubes as she was not married. I asked the doctor to give me four hours to see what I could do. I made a fast trip to Roundaway and picked up the patient's sister, who led me to the patient's common law husband who was on a tractor in a cotton field in Tutwiler. I explained the situation to him and he readily agreed for me to take him to the courthouse to apply for a marriage license. There was no three day waiting period then. The three of us got to the hospital after lunch that day. A notary public in the hospital signed the marriage license.

"I left the hospital and came to my home to get a white gown and robe for Freddie to get married in. Headed back to the hospital, I went by Yazoo Street to get a local minister who often helped me with my nursing service in his community. He agreed to accompany me to the hospital to perform the marriage. Before the ceremony began, I called the doctor to advise him to post the surgery for the next morning. The hospital nurses helped to arrange a waiting room for the ceremony and agreed to serve as witnesses.

"Freddie had a tubal and, with no other means to get home, I carried her and the baby home two or three days later. I had contacted the local Welfare Department to assist the family with basic food and clothing needs. I continued to visit this family for several years to assure that basic health services such as immunizations for all of the children were provided."

This account is representative of public health nurses in action over and over again, demonstrating compassion and total family health care.

Dr. Felix J. Underwood retired as State Health Officer on July 1, 1958, after 38 remarkable and pioneering years of public health service. Dr. Underwood held a high regard for public health nurses and supported the expansion of public health nursing positions and activities throughout his tenure.

Dr. Archie Lee Gray, M.D., M.P.H., became State Health Officer immediately following Dr. Underwood's retirement. Dr. Gray had been associated with the Mississippi State Board of Health since 1933 in general public health and preventable disease. The public health philosophy and mission in Mississippi was well established and carried forward with the administration change. During this period, however, emphasis was placed on other disciplines such as disease intervention specialists and sanitarians and on communicable disease, Dr. Gray's primary area of interest.

New challenges were brought forth for public health nursing as changes in administration occurred. The State Board of Health, accepting the responsibility for mental health services, initiated a federal grant proposing follow-up care in the community for a pilot project. The proposal defined public health nursing's role in the community to care for mental health patients being discharged from state institutions.

The Division of Preventable Disease Control established the Chronic Disease Control unit to initiate programs for diabetes case finding and care and to provide home nursing services to the aging population. An Accident Prevention Program was also initiated and integrated with general public health nursing services. Many health promotion and teaching activities for accident prevention were developed within basic child health services.

During the 1950's, public health nursing services shifted significantly from the field to clinics, a trend that had been noted since the mid 40's. A shift from family health to more technical, disease oriented services occurred as a result of limited medical coverage and increased demands for nursing services. The relationship of quality and quantity were certainly being tested through this era. Many dilemmas are noted in the historical review of public health nursing through the 1950's; yet public health nursing had met their challenges head-on.

1960-1969: Changing Times

Mississippi, along with the nation, continued to flourish economically as the 1960's era began. Social and political events and people's attitudes were changing dramatically.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations and provided for universal voter registration, generating improved opportunities for many citizens. Lyndon Johnson, U.S. President from 1963-1968, guided national legislation for what he termed the New Society. One component of the New Society was the "War on Poverty," designed to expand social programs and enhance educational and employment opportunities. Another significant factor of the 1960's was the continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War, which, though begun in 1957 with public support, resulted in much public outcry and opposition by the mid 60's.

Most disturbing in review of this decade, however, was the dramatic increase in such crimes as murder, robbery, and rape. Illicit drug use also increased dramatically in this decade. Sociologists have attributed the increased crime rate and drug abuse to many factors, including the weakening of the family,poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, and a feeling of hopelessness and alienation. The impact of these social changes would eventually force public health nursing to focus on new issues and refocus on old issues to continue the public health mission "to provide for the protection of life and health and to prevent the spread of disease."

According to the Biennial Report of the Mississippi Board of Health, 1959-1961, between 1960-1961, forty-six branch health department clinics were constructed in twenty-nine counties. This greatly improved access to public health nursing in more rural areas of the state and discontinued the need for nurses to carry the large brown Field Bag. That report summarized the improved health status of Mississippians and identified the significant changes in mortality and morbidity rates. Tuberculosis and several other infectious diseases were no longer the leading causes of death. Typhoid fever, diphtheria, malaria, smallpox, and pellagra had caused 2,440 deaths in 1930-1931; by 1959-1960, only sixteen deaths were reported from these diseases. Heart disease, circulatory diseases, cancer, accidents, and diabetes had become leading causes of death in Mississippi.

Rural Electric Power Associations had expanded throughout the state. Farmers Home Administration (FHA) loans enabled large and small land owners to build better houses at low interest rates. At the same time, FHA loans enabled rural communities to develop community water systems which met standards established by the State Board of Health. These progressive measures brought conveniences and amenities throughout Mississippi. Safe drinking water and approved waste disposal were becoming a reality for rural Mississippi. Yes, improved sanitation, health promotion, and vaccine campaigns were paying off!

This evaluation of morbidity and mortality in Mississippi indicated that public health needed to develop new strategies and programs to continue its mission. In 1960, Louise Holmes persuaded the State Health Officer and other necessary authorities to create a position as Assistant Director of Public Health Nursing to support the development and integration of adult health services into general public health nursing services. Holmes promoted long time staff nurse Zona Jelks, R.N., M.P.H., as her assistant. In her tenure with the Mississippi Board of Health since 1941, Jelks had worked as a county public health nurse since 1941 in both Washington and Harrison counties, as a county nursing supervisor, and as one of the four Field Advisory Nurses.

In 1962, the Division of Chronic Disease was established under the direction of Dr. Alton B. Cobb. Jelks worked closely with Cobb to establish the goals, objectives and activities to be carried out through the public health nursing service system.

One of Jelks' first initiatives was to evaluate the contents of the nurses' black bag. Changes included a newer aneroid sphygmomanometer and the addition of new items including several catheters, thumb forceps, scissors, and a variety of improved venipuncture supplies.

Public health nurses conducted community-wide diabetic screening projects to find undiagnosed cases of diabetes. Between 1965 and 1967, they identified approximately 1,300 previously undiagnosed patients. Referrals were made to local physicians to initiate a treatment plan to be carried out by the public health nurse. The patient care process between the local physician and the public health nurses became known as joint management and proved to be an effective and cost efficient means of delivering care in the community. About 30,000 public health nursing visits were made to 4,300 diabetic patients in these same years. Public health nursing interventions included education, dietary counseling, and instruction in the administration of insulin to prevent acute and chronic complications and improve overall health status.

In addition, Papanicolaou's tests to screen for cervical cancer were integrated with existing services. Efforts were also underway to address hypertension, another disease determined to contribute significantly to high morbidity and mortality rates in Mississippi.

Through the 1950's, the nursing home industry had begun to emerge, with licensure requirements for standards of operation developed to assure quality of services and care. Communities were accommodating an increase in the number of elderly persons living with chronic and degenerative diseases. A public health nursing consultant was employed to assist in the licensure and re-licensure process, specifically to evaluate patient care. Public health nurses provided training courses for nurses' aides employed in nursing homes.

Mary Lester, R.N., one of the four Field Advisory Nurses, conducted a research study on staphylococcal infections in all nursing homes in the state in the early 60's to evaluate the extent of staph infections and to determine nursing interventions to eliminate this infectious disease.

Through these types of nursing initiatives, more rigid standards were developed, improving the quality of life for nursing home residents. County public health nurses regularly visited the nursing homes within their communities, providing TB skin testing, administering flu vaccine, and providing technical assistance in nursing care. A nutritionist and physical therapist employed by the Mississippi Board of Health provided additional expertise to improve care processes and support public health nurses in the areas of rehabilitation and nutrition.

Mental health services remained an integral part of public health service delivery through this decade, with new activities enhancing the community focus. A national trend had begun in the 1960's to release psychiatric patients from institutional care as improved psychotropic drugs and treatment modalities were available. Inadequate staffing at the state mental health institutions due to the nursing shortage was a complicating factor. In 1959, the Mississippi Department of Health entered a cooperative relationship with the state mental institutions to do a demonstration project. This project was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Janet Amendt, R.N., was employed as a mental health nurse consultant to spearhead the research efforts of the project. The project's public health nursing activity was defined as "aftercare" and was designed to determine the effectiveness of integrating follow-up services to mental health clients and their families into general public health nursing service. Scott, Newton, Jasper, and Smith counties were selected as the pilot sites for the project.

In-service programs were conducted by Amendt and consulting psychiatrists for all public health nurses participating in the project. Public health nursing services included case finding and referral, hospital discharge planning, home and family assessments prior to and following discharge to the home, and medication supervision to these patients. Teaching and health promotion were basic nursing interventions included in these mental health activities.

The project proved successful, and six new counties implemented aftercare services in the remaining months of 1963. Evaluation of the aftercare project indicated that additional public health nursing positions would be required to provide the increasing demand for this service. This effort eventually resulted in statewide service availability.

Great emphasis was placed on child health, growth, and development in the early 1960's. Communicable disease, intestinal parasites, and physical defects that had been so prevalent in the school age population were greatly diminished. Evaluations of this population found the new concerns to be dental and oral defects, vision and hearing defects, mental and emotional disturbances, accidents, and serious nutritional deficiencies. Continuing education was provided statewide to enhance public health nurses' skills in observation, assessment and nursing interventions in the care of children.

Child health services provided by public health nurses included screening for physical defects, administration of immunizations, follow-up to correct physical defects, referral for mental health evaluations, consultation to teachers, and health promotion in nutrition, accident prevention, and mental health.

Public health nursing experienced a major transition as Louise Holmes retired as Director of Public Health Nursing on June 30, 1963. Holmes had strengthened the standards of professional public health nursing established by Mary D. Osborne. Zona Jelks, promoted from Assistant Director to Director of Public Health Nursing on July 1, 1963, brought knowledge and experience as she assumed her new role.

Immunizations administered by public health nurses were proving effective. Yet surveys showed that many preschool and school-age children were not completely immunized. The Mississippi Board of Health, continuing its vigilance of Mississippi's health status, received a federal grant under the Vaccination Assistance Act. In 1965, public health nurses administered 1,500,000 immunizations. Oral polio, known as Sabin vaccine, had became available in a sugar cube administration form. Measles vaccine became available in 1966 and rubella in 1969. Following mass initial immunization campaigns for both measles and rubella, the new vaccines were incorporated into routine immunization schedules for children.

By the mid 1960's, federal funding for maternal/child health services had required the incorporation of contraceptive information and general reproductive health into public health services. The objective was to reduce maternal and infant mortality and to improve the health and well-being of mothers and children generally.

Dr. Underwood had, in the early 1930's, recognized the health problems associated with multiple unplanned and unwanted pregnancies and had been an early leader in efforts to repeal federal and state laws restricting birth control services. By 1944, Dr. Underwood had successfully integrated family planning counseling and issuing of select supplies with maternity and postpartum services into about one third of the county health departments. Contraceptive supplies at that time included condoms and diaphragms. However, due to the wide divergence of public opinion, the development of the program was slow and unpublicized.

By 1965, every county health department provided contraceptive counseling and supplies. Oral contraceptives were also available by this time and gave women more convenient and accepted method choices. Public health nurses promoted family planning and were

Last reviewed on Feb 22, 2011
Sign up for weekly public health updates by e-mail: 
Mississippi State Department of Health 570 East Woodrow Wilson Dr Jackson, MS 39216 866-HLTHY4U Contact and information

Facebook Twitter Instagram RSS

Accredited by the national Public Health Accreditation Board