Jane Keller’s Nearing End of Fourth ‘Nursing Life’
by Dwayne Summar – Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 19, 1963, Page B-16
Back in 1921, a young Sevier County girl climbed the steps of old General Hospital on Cleveland Place, defying a Victorian concept of her parents and contemporaries.
Miss Jane Keller had wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember. And she had finally decided to get started. After all, it had been six years since the young woman had graduated from Chilhowee Baptist Academy. She was getting behind.
During those six years, Jane Keller had done what was expected of her. She had taught school in a one-room schoolhouse in Sevier County and taken several courses at U-T.
“Teaching school was the only respectable employment for a woman back then,” Miss Keller recalls. At least, that’s what I was told.
Soon after her arrival at Knoxville General Hospital Training School for Nurses, as it was called then, Miss Keller heard her supervisor say:
“The life of a nurse is about 10 years.”
“Oh, she didn’t mean we were only going to live 10 more years. She meant that 10 years was about as long as we could expect to nurse. And that sounded like such a long time then,” Miss Keller said.
Career Has Changed
At the time the statement was made, Jane Keller even said, “Mercy me, I’ll never be a nurse for 10 years.”
But today, over 40 years later, Jane Keller is nearing the end of her fourth “nursing life,” looking forward to beginning her fifth.
A pleasant-talking woman with a warm, merry kind of smile, Miss Keller recalls her student-nursing days and notes the changes that have taken place in the life of a Knoxville student nurse and graduate nurse since she began.
“The nursing course was more practical in nature in 1921, with few academic courses offered. And the military-type discipline was really something,” Mis Keller began.
“Why, I wouldn’t have thought of going in and talking to my supervisor. And when she did call a student into her office, the girls shook as if doomsday itself had arrived,” she said.
Pay Was $10
“That is certainly one big change today, because a supervisor is now much more a friend to her students that a drill sergeant.”
The president of the 1924 class at old General also recalls how the value of money has changed in that time. First-year student nurses lived on about $10 a month which they received from the hospital.
“Out of the $10, we had to buy our books and uniforms. What was left over was our spending money. And, you know, we thought that was quite a lot.”
Of course, little money was needed since there was so little time for the nursing students to spend it anyway.
“The only free night we had as students was on Tuesdays,” Miss Keller recalls. “Of course, we didn’t think too much of it since there wasn’t really anything to do except take the streetcar downtown to a movie. And that was a real treat.”
After her three years as a student at General, Jane Keller decided to stay on there as a graduate nurse.
She began in the out-patient department, going on to become head nurse there. Then she went to the emergency ward, serving as acting director of the nursing school between various directors.
And before Miss Jane Keller was named superintendent of nurses and director of the nursing school, she had been assistant in that post.
In 1939, she received the reins of the top nursing post, becoming the hospital’s 19th director. And before she retired from that post in 1952, Miss Keller had become the person to serve longest as General’s nursing chief.
As Miss Keller recalled her General Hospital days, she mentioned several diseases that really gave them a fit back in the 1930s and 40s, diseases that seem remote to most people today.
Among them was polio. “Back during the mid-40s we even had to get the Red Cross to recruit out-of-state nurses for us as the hospital began to fill up with more and more polio victims,” she said. “It used to really keep us busy back before the days of vaccine.”
Loan Named for Her
Another disease that plagued many Knoxvillians and East Tennesseans back in those days was typhoid. “It, too, used to demand a need for extra nurses. Of course, much of the problem was caused by impure water, again a condition which is no longer found here,” she said.
What’s it like when mangled accident victims arrive in an emergency room?
“Your first thought is to act fast as possible,” the veteran nurse answered. “I remember a call we got once to expect a lot of injuries from a train wreck. Our one and only thought was to get ready as fast as we could.”
Even though Miss Keller has performed practically all the duties normally associated with nursing, her 39-year career has centered around the training of nurses. Not only was that her major concern at General, it still is today in her present position at Eastern State Hospital.
As a leader who has helped many a young nurse through counseling and sympathy, she was honored in 1951 at General when a student nurse loan was named in her honor. It was established by the hospital’s alumnae group in which Miss Keller has always been active.
When it became necessary for a student nurse to have three months of psychiatric training before she could pass the state board, Miss Jane Keller again came to their aid.
She was named Eastern State director of nurses in the new program at the hospital. Miss Keller has now served in that position for almost 11 years.
“Here is a field (mental health) where I have seen an unusual amount of progress. And much of it has just been in the last few years.”
As Miss Keller spoke of the increased number of doctors, nurses and aides, the progress became increasingly apparent. But the biggest contrast in the changing attitudes toward mental and emotional disturbances can best be seen by stepping only a few feet from Miss Keller’s office.
From the wooden front porch of Eastern State’s administration building where Jane Keller maintains a first-floor office, the past and the present stand and stare at each other.
Up on the hill, like an old brick fortress with its rambling wings and corner towers, the 1884 administration building looks down on its modern successor.
The scene at the foot of the same hill, resting beside Fort Loudoun Lake, has a resort-like atmosphere. A bright blue swimming pool seems to look up at its 1884 ancestor in disgust.
Around the pool is a beautiful contemporary chapel, surrounded by 12 cottage-like dormitories that provide a homelike atmosphere for those recuperating there.
Sitting behind her desk, looking immaculate in her neat white uniform, Miss Keller speaks with pride of the increased prestige nursing now enjoys as a profession.
Even though the uniform is a frequent and respected sight in stores and on the streets today, Jane Keller recalls when that wasn’t the case.
“Years ago, nurses were not allowed on the streets in their uniforms,” she said. “They even came to the hospital in their street clothes, changing into their uniforms after they got there. And, you know, I still feel funny in mine outside the hospital,” she said.
But Jane Keller certainly does not feel anything but satisfaction when the recalls her years in nursing. “People appreciate kindness, and that’s one of my major rewards.”