Helen R. Johnson

A Living Legacy 50 Years in the Making
School of Nursing celebrates a half-century of teaching excellence

She had no faculty, no students, no funding — just a simple idea for a nursing program that would train excellent nurses at a time when there was an overwhelming demand for more.

When Helen R. Johnson came to Purdue in 1962 to create the University's first nursing program, she had little more than that plan. For the next 18 years, she was the driving force behind the success of nursing education at Purdue. Today, although the program has grown and changed, her legacy remains strong.

Historic Beginnings

Nursing Students placing Nursing cap

Cap and Gown: Students from Purdue's first nursing class (left to right) Kathleen Phillips, Carolyn Schneck, Lonna Gunning and Vicki Hartman display the "new" nursing caps. Fashioned after Purdue Pete's square lid, the cap is edged in gold and black stripes. All earned associate degrees in 1965. (Photo courtesy of the School of Nursing)

In the 1950s and early 1960s, demand for nurses was at an all-time high across the country. Yet schools of nursing run by hospitals — the norm at the time — were closing one after another. That left universities, particularly land-grant schools like Purdue, scrambling to design programs that would provide high-quality nursing education.

In fact, in November 1960, then-University President Frederick Hovde, like many other heads of Indiana colleges and universities, received a letter from the Indiana State Medical Association urging him to "seriously consider" establishing a school of nursing at Purdue. Purdue agreed.

"We wanted to start a nursing program, but we hadn't been able to find anyone who could build it from the ground up as well as run it," said Charles Lawshe, dean of University Extension, at the time. "We were close to giving up the idea until Helen came along."

About a year later, on October 18, 1961, Johnson took her proposal for a Purdue nursing two-year associate degree program to the University Extension Council outlining her plan based on a projected need for nurses in the state. It was approved almost immediately, with one caveat from Hovde himself: "If we are going to have nursing at Purdue, it is going to be a fine program."

Rising to the occasion, she accomplished the monumental task of securing outside funding, hiring faculty, arranging clinical sites, developing a curriculum and securing state approval of the new Department of Nursing in just one year.

When the department opened its doors in 1963 as part of the School of Technology, Johnson was joined by four other faculty members and an inaugural class of 30 students. Their first administrative office — shared with an administrator in the Continuing Education division — was a small space on the second floor of the Purdue Memorial Union.

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