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  • Writer's pictureArwen Rasmussen

Dusting Off Some Local History: "Training Nurses"

By Greg Kocken, Archivist, UW-Eau Claire,

The recent news announcing the exit of Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) from western Wisconsin sent shockwaves through our community. Both Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls possess rich histories dating back to the 1880s. These hospitals, along with others in our area, have helped to make Eau Claire a regional hub for the healthcare industry. More than just supporting community healthcare, these hospitals also played a critical role in helping to train and prepare nurses and other healthcare professionals. Nationally, hospitals and health care systems are grappling with a shortage of nurses and other medical staff. These shortages have only grown worse since the Covid-19 pandemic. For this edition of the column, I want to take a moment to explore the history of nursing education in the Chippewa Valley.

In 1907, Luther Hospital established the first nurse training program in the Eau Claire area. Sacred Heart soon followed establishing a program in 1917. While the Luther program would continue to grow throughout the first half of the 20th century, the program at Sacred Heart would ultimately be discontinued in 1937 in favor of expanding the hospital’s services in other technical areas. In the late 1940s the nurse training program at Luther enrolled over 100 students. By this time, however, the costs for hospitals to operate nurse training programs were rising in order to meet the rigor of meeting accreditation standards.


In the early 1940s, UW-Eau Claire (then known as the Eau Claire State Teachers College) engaged Luther Hospital in conversations about partnering to expand healthcare education opportunities at the college. In the mid-1950s, the new Bachelor of Science program in Medical Technology at Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire (now UWEC) included a one-year internship at Luther. Alongside this collaboration, students in the Luther Hospital program at this time also received a year of academic training at the college. When Sacred Heart opened its current facility along Claremont Avenue in the 1960s, the University planned to align a new nurse training program with the hospital. The competition created by this new plan, along with other factors, prompted Luther Hospital to abandon its program in October 1965. Fortunately, this moment coincided with the first class to enter the Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at UW-Eau Claire. The university quickly moved to accept the students in the Luther program into the new UWEC program.

In the mid-1960s, University leaders did not know how strong demand would be for a Bachelor of Nursing program and were stunned when more than 200 students sought admission to the program. This led the program, which was granted temporary accreditation, to quickly expand. The original faculty of three in 1965 grew to 22 by the 1967-1968 school year! The nursing program at UW-Eau Claire remains in high demand and a critical pipeline helping to meet the nursing needs of hospitals across the Chippewa Valley.

Is there a local history mystery or topic you want to know more about? Do you have a suggestion for an upcoming column of “Dusting Off?” Please contact Greg at the UW-Eau Claire archives. He would love to hear from you. 

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