1. Grypma, Sonya

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I thought of Virginia Woolf's proposition recently as I sat at a desk in an upstairs room in the Rockefeller Archives Center (RAC, n.d.), a stone mansion in the countryside of Sleepy Hollow, New York. "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write," Woolf famously insisted (1929). To Woolf, the reason there were so few women authors was that few had access to a quiet space, living expenses, and the break from daily responsibilities necessary to think and write. I suspect the same could have been said of women students; few had the practical support necessary to enable them to focus on postgraduate studies.

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The Rockefellers must have agreed.


As my colleagues and I have been discovering, between 1915 and 1965 the Rockefeller Foundation provided innumerous nurses from around the world--mostly women--with the funding necessary to take postgraduate studies at home and abroad.


At Sleepy Hollow I joined a (rather quiet) group of scholars from around the world, each of us behind desks for the better part of 5 days, focused intently on historical documents retrieved for us by erudite, whispering archivists. Many had received grants intended to "foster, promote, and support research by serious scholars." And serious we were. So serious, in fact, that we hardly looked at each other, never mind spoke, as each interrogated our own stack of materials. It was over our lunchtime chats that I gained a sense of the global reach of the Rockefeller philanthropic enterprise, then and now.


My focus at the archives was quite specific. Gathering materials related to the Rockefeller Foundation-funded nursing fellows in China before 1951, I started to learn how the Foundation provided nurses with the necessary "money and room of their own" to take postgraduate studies at prominent universities around the world. Led by a vision of advancing medical and educational work in China, the Foundation granted fellowships for promising Chinese nurses to study in Beijing, Toronto, New York, Baltimore, and London. Some of the nurses went on to hold influential positions in China. Their story is only the tip of the iceberg; nurses from around the globe received similar fellowships.


The longer I research historical nursing the more I appreciate those who supported nursing behind the scenes-many of whom were, like the Rockefellers, motivated by Christian ideals. Nursing in early 20th century China was almost entirely dependent on charity. Western-style nursing had been introduced in China in the late 1800s by individual missionary nurses who went to China to assist missionary physicians. Elizabeth McKechnie, the first missionary nurse to China, arrived in 1884 to work with Dr. Elizabeth Reifsnyder. The pair was supported by a wealthy widow, Margaret Williamson (Grypma, in press). For the next 30 years, Western missionaries developed a number of hospitals around China. For the most part, the medical and nursing work was funded by charitable congregations and philanthropists.


In the 1910s John D. Rockefeller, Jr. emerged as a different kind of benefactor, drawing on the vast family fortune, business acumen, and Christian motivation to bring a new vision for a healthcare system in China that was not dependent on foreigners, but headed by a new generation of Chinese leaders (Ferguson, 1970). Today, 90 years after its establishment, the Peking Union Medical University continues its long tradition as a recognized leader in nursing education (China Medical Board, 2010).


What does this mean for Christian nurses today? It is a reminder that the work nurses do does not happen in a vacuum. It requires infrastructure, resource, and visionary leadership. How much of our work is an outplaying of someone else's vision to bring Christ's hope and healing to the world? What is the history of your place of work? What nursing vision will you support? These are questions worth asking. Turn over a few bricks, and prepare to be inspired.


China Medical Board. (2010) CMB Nursing Network meets in Beijing. Retrieved from[Context Link]


Ferguson, M. E. (1970). China Medical Board & Peking Union Medical College: A chronicle of fruitful collaboration, 1914-1951. New York, NY: CMB of New York, Inc. [Context Link]


Grypma, S. (in press). Missionary nursing: Internationalizing religious ideals. In M. Fowler, E. Johnston-Taylor, B. Pesut, S. Reimer-Kirkham, & R. Sawatzky (Eds.). Religions in nursing: ethical, theoretical and empirical perspectives. New York, NY: Springer.


Rockefeller Archives Center. (n.d.). The Rockefeller Archive Center. Retrieved from


Woolf, V. (1929). A room of one's own. Boston, MA: Harcourt. [Context Link]