We all affect the lives of others, but the sphere of influence for most folks is limited. Relatively few among us substantially impact multiple generations, but the innovative work of a pioneering North Country native has affected nearly every American and Japanese citizen, plus countless others, for the past 125 years.
Malinda Ann Judson Richards, self-described as Linda Richards, was born in 1841 near Potsdam in St. Lawrence County. Her father, a preacher, named her after one of America’s first female foreign missionaries, Ann Judson. The family left Potsdam and moved to Minnesota when Linda was four years old, but just six weeks after arriving there, Sanford Richards died of tuberculosis. His widow, Betsy, moved the family to Vermont to live with her father. Linda later recalled fond memories of the relationship she shared with her grandfather during this time. They lived with him until he remarried in 1850, at which time Betsy purchased a nearby farm.
A decade after Sanford’s death, tragedy struck again as Betsy fell seriously ill and eventually became bedridden, remaining under Linda’s care until succumbing in April 1855. Though she was only fourteen years old at the time, Linda had demonstrated remarkable maturity and care-giving capabilities throughout the ordeal. Those traits were recognized by the local country doctor, who frequently picked her up to accompany him on his rounds.
Even at such a young age, she became what was known as a “born nurse,” a person called on by area residents dealing with illness or injury. Without pay, the born nurse went wherever comfort and care were needed. If she had family of her own, others stepped in to babysit and oversee her household while the nurse was meeting the urgent needs of others. As noted in her memoir, it was with great pride that Linda, as a teenager, assumed the role of born nurse in the St. Johnsbury area.
Following Betsy’s death, the girls returned to live with their grandfather, and a few years later, after finishing school, Linda became a teacher. Many sources relate the following story from her life at this point: that she boarded with a widow during a teaching job; fell in love with the woman’s nephew, George Poole; became engaged to marry him in 1861; that George enlisted to fight in the Civil War; that he became ill or was injured; and he returned home, where Linda nursed him for several years until he died. They never married.
The story may be true, but it’s at least curious that in her own memoir, which praises many friends and associates who had a deep impact on her life, neither George nor any other man is mentioned in the capacity of a beau. However, there’s little doubt that nursing such a man through great difficulties is something she would have readily done.
She does state, “My desire to become a nurse grew out of what I heard of the need of nurses in the Civil War.” After aiding and comforting her mother and others over the course of several years, Linda was drawn to nursing as her life’s calling. Logic told her that training was needed, but where to get such an education? Since there were no institutions offering instruction, working at a hospital was the only option available.
After being hired as an assistant nurse at Boston City Hospital, she discovered that most of her job involved maid work. Within a few days she spoke to the head nurse, who was sympathetic to her plea and allowed Richards to perform several nursing duties.
But Linda’s hope for deep involvement in patient care met with further disappointment, evidenced by her description of the head nurse’s duties: “To be sure, she gave the medicines, of which she knew nothing, either of name or desired action. She was not told nor instructed how to watch symptoms, and only keen eyes and good common sense told her the signs of danger.
“I there learned how little care was given to the sick, how little their groans and restlessness meant to most of the nurses. There were a few who, like my own head nurse, did the work to the best of their ability because they loved to serve humanity, but the majority were thoughtless, careless, and often heartless. The wards were badly kept. Nurses were not respected … poorly fed … had little time off duty, and no one seemed to have any supervision over them.”
After three months on the job, she was ill and decided to leave, but was offered the position of head nurse if she would return after recovering. She found the offer discouraging because, “I did not know enough for such a position. I felt that I could not be of use in a place where really good work was not required.”
A few years later, inspired by a book detailing a British nurse’s training in London, she learned that the Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts (now part of Boston), was organizing a training school. She applied and began attending classes in September 1872 in a program operated by two women doctors. Trainees were on duty 24 hours a day, sleeping in small rooms between the wards. The only time allowed off was an afternoon every two weeks. After a year’s training, diplomas were given, and Linda Richards, the first to come aboard, thus became America’s first trained nurse.
Next: Part 2
Photo of Linda Richards from Reminiscences of Linda Richards, America’s First Trained Nurse.