Mary Lewis Wyche: Implementor of Dreams

Mary Lewis Wyche: Implementor of Dreams

Mary Lewis Wyche is considered the pioneer of organized nursing in North Carolina. She was born February 26, 1858, near Henderson in Vance County. She had six sisters and several brothers. She attended Henderson College and while a student taught in the primary department of that school. After graduating, she moved to Chapel Hill where she established a home for her younger brothers while they attended UNC-Chapel Hill. While in Chapel Hill, she taught school part time and also kept boarders. Her strong belief in education led her to make small loans to a number of young students who might not have otherwise been able to enter college.

By the time Miss Wyche's brothers no longer needed her assistance, most of her sisters were married. Although she had arrived at an age when she could have been designated an "old maid," she was just beginning her own life as a professional woman. Initially, she had thought she wanted to become a physician, but then decided on a nursing career. She graduated from Philadelphia General Hospital in 1894 at the age of 36.

Upon her return to North Carolina, she was appointed superintendent of nurses at Rex Hospital in Raleigh. She served as head nurse, matron and bookkeeper and received $25 a month and was given room and board. As soon as she got situated, she organized the Rex Hospital Training School for Nurses. There were five students in the initial class and four of them graduated.

Miss Wyche realized the great need for higher standards for nursing in North Carolina. She attended a meeting of the International Council of Nurses in Buffalo, NY and listened to discussions on legislation and registration. She returned home to form a state nurses association. Her first attempt was to organize the Raleigh Nurses Association in 1901. She sent post cards to the Raleigh nurses with this request:

"Please meet me at the office of Dr. A. W. Knox at four o'clock p.m. Wednesday, October 10, 1901."

Not one single nurse showed up, but this did not stop Miss Wyche. Two weeks later a second post card went out to her fellow nurses. This notice read:

"There will be another important meeting of the Raleigh Nurses Association at 4 o'clock p.m. Wednesday, October 24, 1901."

Curiosity took the place of indifference. The ruse worked. Every nurse heeded the second notice. Miss Wyche, after confessing the trick she had played in order to bring them together, presented her plans for the organization and asked their opinions.

The following year, with the help of the Raleigh Nurses' Association, she set out to organize the state nurses association. Questionnaires were sent to every nurse in the state whose address could be secured.  The response was favorable, so plans were made for these nurses to meet in Raleigh during Fair Week when railroads offered special rates. Fourteen nurses met with the Raleigh Nurses Association in the Olivia Raney Library on October 28, 1902 and the North Carolina State Nurses Association was formed.

Miss Wyche's next step was to have a law enacted for the registration of nurses. This was her plan for raising standards and was accomplished through the NC State Nurses Association. This law, signed by Governor Charles Aycock on March 3, 1903, made North Carolina the first state to legalize registration of nurses.

Miss Wyche was made honorary president of the NC State Nurses Association for life in 1907. She served six years on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Trained Nurses. She alternated her years in the nursing profession between private duty nursing and hospital nursing. She retired in 1925 after serving as superintendent of nurses at Watts Hospital in Durham for ten years and Sarah Elizabeth Hospital in Henderson for two years. She compiled a history of nursing in North Carolina which was published in 1938 two years after her death.