After a few months’ stay in France, Potsdam native Linda Richards arrived back in the United States in March 1891. With the best credentials in the world for training nurses, she developed new programs or redesigned existing ones at many facilities during the next two decades.
Among them were the Philadelphia Visiting Nurses’ Society; Kirkbride’s Hospital for the Insane (Philadelphia); the Methodist Episcopal Hospital (Philadelphia); the New England Hospital for Women and Children (Roxbury, Massachusetts); and the Brooklyn Homeopathic Hospital (New York City). In 1895, during her tenure at Brooklyn, she was elected president of the newly founded American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses. Describing the changes she had seen since the early 1870s, Richards called it a “revolution of feeling toward training schools and trained nurses.”
While working with the society, she continued building and improving programs in facilities that included the Hartford Hospital (Connecticut); the University of Pennsylvania Hospital (Philadelphia); the Taunton Hospital for the Insane (Massachusetts); the Worcester Hospital for the Insane (Massachusetts); and the Kalamazoo Insane Asylum (Michigan).
After serving as matron and superintendent at those facilities, she returned in September 1910 to the Taunton hospital, from which she retired in March 1911 at age 70 as Superintendent Emeritus.
In retirement, she continued supporting nursing causes and penned a memoir, Reminiscences of Linda Richards, America’s First Trained Nurse (a reprint will soon be available from Bloated Toe Publishing). Plaudits followed wherever she went. The American Nurses Association in 1912 was represented by a corporate seal bearing an image of Richards. In 1922, she was widely lauded on the 50th anniversary of the training school at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where in 1873 she had earned a diploma as America’s first trained nurse.
Richards regularly attended meetings of the American Nurses Association, but in spring 1925, a cerebral hemorrhage left her blind and disabled. With the greatest of irony, she was placed under nursing care in the New England Hospital for Women and Children, from which she had graduated a half century ago, and where she had served as superintendent more than thirty years earlier. Now a beneficiary of her own good work, she remained an invalid whose mental condition gradually declined until death arrived in April 1930, three months shy of her 89th birthday.
At the Old South Church in Boston, more than 800 nurses and nursing students attended a memorial in her honor. Among the speakers were Dr. Alfred Worcester of Harvard University, a longtime friend and supporter, who said, “How surprised Miss Richards would have been could she have foreseen that so many friends would attend her funeral, or that such a meeting as this would be held in her honor. As often happens, it is only after a life in this world has ended that its real worth is recognized. A few days ago, we could think of our old friend only as blind and pitiably helpless. Today, when we seem to see her life as a whole, we think only of her well-won glory.
“To have been given the earliest American nursing diploma may have been, as she used to say, merely because she happened to be the first one to begin training. But it was by no mere chance that Linda Richards started so many of our now famous training schools, nor was there anything haphazard in her having been given the task of starting trained nursing in Japan.
“If ever her biography shall appear, the comparison will naturally be made between her life and that of Florence Nightingale. They knew each other well. In introducing Miss Richards to the matron of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Miss Nightingale said of her: ‘I have seldom seen anyone who struck me as so admirable. I think we have as much to learn from her as she from us.’ ”
Recognition of Linda’s great accomplishments has been ongoing since her death. In 1941, a century after her birth, nurses from Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence Counties formed the Linda Richards League of Nursing Education, which a decade later became the Linda Richards League for Nursing.
The 75th anniversary of her graduation from nursing school was marked in 1948 by ceremonies and events across the country. Among those involved in recognizing her contributions to American nursing were President Truman and ex-President Hoover. November 16, designated as Linda Richards Day, culminated in a large banquet at New York City’s Biltmore Hotel, and the presentation of medals with her image to an outstanding nurse selected from each of the 48 states. A memorial room with a history exhibit was created in her honor at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Richards has been recognized in many other ways—with the Linda Richards Memorial Home for Nurses at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital (1931), the preservation of one of her uniforms by the Smithsonian in 1961, and a plaque in the Canton-Potsdam Hospital.
In 1976, along with Dorothea Dix and ten others, she was a charter inductee into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame, which credits her with becoming American’s first trained nurse, introducing the concept of written patient records, originating the use of nurse uniforms in America, and buying the first share of stock in the American Journal of Nursing.
Richards was named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1994. She is among the stops on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, and an exhibit on Richards was opened at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2014 in their Museum of Medical History and Innovation. In northern New York, the Linda Richards Society recognizes contributors to the Canton-Potsdam Hospital, and she is featured in a historical display in the Potsdam Public Museum.
But for all the honors she received posthumously, one for which Richards seemed deserving somehow slipped through the cracks. In 1938, the American Nurses Association proposed a Linda Richards commemorative postage stamp for issue in 1941, marking the hundredth anniversary of her birth. In early 1941, State Senator James Mead was on the case, pursing the request at the federal level. There was great anticipation of acceptance, particularly in the Potsdam area, where local organizations expressed support. State Representative Clarence Kilburn joined the cause, and Potsdam’s postmaster urged the post office department to issue a Richards stamp.
Ultimately, Postmaster General Frank Walker informed Mead and Kilburn that the budget for the current fiscal year, ending in June 1942, was already in place, so the request could not be honored. In early 1942, Kilburn renewed the request as part of the following year’s budget, and Scott’s Monthly Journal, a stamp-related publication, noted that, “Postal officials say the stamp ‘is still on our agenda for consideration and has a good chance of being issued.’ ”
But between the initial request in 1941 and the second in 1942, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and war became the nation’s focus. The request may have been rejected (perhaps because it was a year too late to honor the 100th anniversary of her birth?), or it may have been forgotten among the chaos of war, but whatever the case, the Linda Richards memorial stamp was never issued. Which is too bad, for she is one North Country native who deserves the honor.
Photo: Linda Richards (from Reminiscences of Linda Richards, America’s First Trained Nurse)