Celebrating National Nurses Week and Florence Nightingale, handwashing innovator

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By Erin Hurley, User Services & Accessioning Archivist

Although, in 2020, advice like “wash your hands” and “cover your mouth when you cough” seem fairly obvious and common sense, there was a time when this was not the case. That time was March 1855, when the situation in British hospitals outside of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) during the Crimean War had become so dire that Florence Nightingale and 40 other women acting as trained volunteer nurses were finally allowed access to patients (they had previously been denied access because of their gender). Hospitals were overcrowded and extremely unsanitary conditions encouraged the spread of infectious diseases like cholera, typhoid, typhus and dysentery, which Nightingale recognized immediately. She implemented basic cleanliness measures, such as baths for patients, clean facilities, and fresh linens, and advocated for an approach that addressed the psychological and emotional, as well as the physical, needs of patients. Her improvements brought a dramatic decline in the mortality rate at these hospitals, which had previously been as high as 40%.

While Nightingale is well known as one of the world’s first nurses, she is less well known for her strikingly lovely data visualizations (including pie charts and a rose-shaped design called the “coxcomb”), which she used to highlight the number of deaths from diseases, in addition to deaths from wounds or injury, during the Crimean War. Nightingale, a mathematician and statistician, recognized the importance of eye-catching visuals in communicating the impact of her innovations.

National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6th (National Nurses Day) and ends each year on May 12th (Florence Nightingale’s birthday). Today, we celebrate the history of nursing and nurses of all kinds, and the essential, life-saving work that they perform. We hope you enjoy this series of digital images from UCSF’s Archives & Special Collections, all digitized and available online through Calisphere. Archives & Special Collections also holds the fascinating Florence Nightingale Memorial Collection, created by Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe & the Fish, which you can read more about here.

Dr. Robert E. Allen, Jr., First Black Clinical Professor of Surgery at UCSF

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Robert E. Allen, Jr., MD, (1935-2018), was born in Blountstown, Florida and always aspired to become a doctor. In pursuit of his dreams, Allen received a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Florida A&M University, master’s degree in Genetics from Michigan State University, and a doctorate in Medicine from Meharry Medical College. He completed his residency in surgery at UC San Francisco, and a fellowship in surgery oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Allen also completed two additional postdoctoral fellowships in surgery at the National Institute of Health and peripheral vascular research at San Francisco General Hospital. As a SFGH fellow in trauma, he organized the ambulance paramedic program while training under F. William Blaisdell, MD.

Robert Allen Jr. in hospital, David Powers collection, 1990-1991
Robert Allen Jr., David Powers collection, 1990-1991

Dr. Allen began his career at UCSF as a Surgical Oncologist, specializing in Melanoma Surgery. He soon became the first Black Clinical Professor of Surgery at UC San Francisco, serving as a faculty member for over four decades.

Allen was a cofounder of the Northern California Melanoma Center with Dr. Lynn E. Spitler and other surgeons. Here, he participated in consultation panels and surgeries on the Center’s patients until his retirement.

He has authored many articles for medical periodicals, wrote chapters in medical publications, and spoke a medical conventions throughout the United States and Europe. In addition, he was a member of various honor societies, including the UCSF Naffziger Surgical Society.

To learn more about Dr. Allen’s work, check out these articles:

https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.31378005703296?urlappend=%3Bseq=416

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Allen+RE+Jr

*Authored by Jazmin Dew*

Health and Social Justice Pioneer, Dr. Vicki Alexander

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Vicki Alexander at SFGH with group of patients. Perinatal Health Project.
Vicki Alexander at SFGH. Perinatal Health Project.

Vicki Alexander, MD, has dedicated her life to improving the social determinants of public health.

Alexander attended the UC San Francisco, where she completed her medical degree and residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1974. She went on to Columbia University, where she obtained her master’s degree in Public Health.

Dr. Alexander began as an Ob-Gyn Clinical Instructor at San Francisco General Hospital. She soon became the director of SFGH’s Perinatal Health Project, which served high-risk mothers and infants in the community. Alexander then relocated to New York, working as a clinical instructor and chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Harlem Hospital. Eventually, she returned to the west coast and became the Maternal Child Health Director and Health Officer for the City of Berkeley until she retired in 2006.

Vicki Alexander at SFGH with mother and child. Perinatal Health Project.
Vicki Alexander at SFGH. Perinatal Health Project.

Alexander has participated in many organizations to improve the living conditions for women and children, including: Rainbow Coalition, Center for Constitutional Rights, Reproductive Rights National Network, Planned Parenthood, City Material and Child Health.

In 1978, she established the Coalition to Fight Infant Mortality in Oakland, which helped women with medical care and social issues.

In 2000, Alexander began the Black Infant Health program in Berkeley, which grew from her coalition at Highland Hospital. This was the foundational step to the creation of the Alameda County Coalition to decrease infant mortality.

Alexander is also the current founder and board president of Healthy Black Families (HBF), Inc., which dovetails with the Black Infant Health program. It was founded as a non-profit organization in July 2013 to support the health, growth, development, and future of Black individuals and families.

For her devotion towards health and social justice, Dr. Vicki has won many awards, including: Women of the Year Award (2011); Martin Luther King, Lifetime Achievement Award (2014); National Jefferson Award for Community Service (2015); Alameda County African American Black History Month Award (2017); Madame CJ Walker Award for Black Women (2017); and 15th Assembly District Woman of the Year Award (2017).

To learn more about Dr. Vicki, check out these articles available in our digital collection on HathiTrust and Synapse Archive:

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31378005703288&view=plaintext&seq=173
https://synapse.library.ucsf.edu/?a=d&d=ucsf19791004-01.2.3&srpos=3&e=——-en–20–1–txt-%22vicki+alexander%22—–txIN–
https://synapse.library.ucsf.edu/?a=d&d=ucsf19800605-01.2.2&srpos=4&e=——-en–20–1–txt-%22vicki+alexander%22—–txIN–

*Authored by Jazmin Dew*