Sara Elizabeth Parsons (1864-1949) 1996 Inductee

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Sara Parsons
ANA Hall of Fame Inductee

A leader in the care of the mentally ill, Sara Elizabeth Parsons steadfastly worked for the advancement of psychiatric nursing throughout her career and established nurse training schools in hospitals and asylums during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She advocated autonomy for nurses and took part in professional activities at state and national levels.

Parsons was born in Northboro, Massachusetts, on April 24, 1864, and received her early education in the town of Oxford, Massachusetts. In 1884, she entered the Boston City Hospital Training School for Nurses, but returned home shortly thereafter to care for her dying mother. She remained at home for the following seven years to look after her two young siblings and entered the Boston Training School at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1891. Following graduation in 1893, Parsons held various positions in nursing, including head nurse, supervisor, and superintendent, and established a nurse training school in Rhode Island in 1896. During the Spanish-American War, Parsons volunteered for service on the "Bay State," a hospital ship used to evacuate sick and wounded military personnel from Cuba and Puerto Rico. After an eight-month trip abroad to recover from typhoid fever, she was employed as superintendent of nurses at Adams Nervine Hospital in Massachusetts, a position she held for three years. At this time, Parsons completed a one-year certificate course in hospital economics at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a six-month course in hospital administration at Massachusetts General Hospital. From 1910 to 1920, she occupied the position of superintendent of Massachusetts General, but took a two-year leave in 1917 to serve as chief nurse of Base Hospital #6 in France.

Parsons initiated considerable change for the student nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital. She implemented a probationary period, higher admission requirements, and a school library. Living conditions were improved and provisions were made for extra-curricular activities. A publication for the alumnae association was begun and plans for an endowment fund for the nursing school were introduced. Parsons served as president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association during this period and was a staunch supporter of the association's legislative goals with respect to licensure and registration for nurses.

A prolific writer, Parsons produced many articles for nursing journals. Her book, Nursing Problems and Obligations, was published in 1916. Her best known work, the History of the Massachusetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses, was published in 1922, and remains a valuable resource for historians. Actively involved in the struggle for full military rank for army nurses, Parsons presented her position in hearings conducted by the United States Senate. She retired in 1926, traveled extensively, and died on October 25, 1949. Sara E. Parsons is remembered as a vigorous opponent of the exploitation of student nurses and as a crusader for improvement in the care of mental illness.