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Clara E. Bell was a trailblazing African American professor of nursing

Giant Leaps Nursing

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

This profile on Clara E. Bell is excerpted from the book Giant Leaps for Better Lives: The History and Untold Stories of the People of the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University by Angie Klink to be published fall 2019. 

Clara E. Bell forged a personal footpath that developed her empathy for the complexities that faced Purdue University’s black students and her black colleagues. She shined a spotlight on the distinct needs of minority nursing students, minority faculty, and what is today Purdue’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion

Born February 9, 1934, in Terre Haute, Indiana, Bell was the first African American student to attend St. Anthony Hospital School of Nursing in Terre Haute.

“When I first went to St. Anthony’s on a scholarship, I wasn’t permitted to live with the other students. After six months, they voted and decided that I could live with them. A lot has changed since then, but discrimination in health care and other professions is still there. It just usually is covert, or hidden, now because prejudiced people are afraid of being looked down upon by their colleagues or of being sued.” 

Clara E. Bell

Bell earned her bachelor of science in nursing from Indiana State University and her master’s and doctoral degrees at Indiana University School of Education. She joined the Purdue School of Nursing faculty in 1981, and became director of continuing education in nursing. Bell led the charge to form the Minority Student Nurses’ Association, the precursor to today’s Diversity in Nursing Association at Purdue. Four students attended the first meeting. A meeting summary stated:

“Numbers are insignificant when one speaks of one’s personal experience. This is true in the personal experience of black nursing students at Purdue University. There are six in the bachelor of science nursing program, a program which numbers 400 students. How insignificant a number, yet how important each personal experience is to each one of the six as compared with the majority.”

“The isolation of the black student was brought to light when it was learned individually that these students were unaware of other black students in the program, nor did they know Dr. Clara Bell, a black professor in the school of Nursing.”

First meeting summary, Minority Student Nurses’ Association at Purdue

On May 3, 1985 the Minority Student Nurses’ Association (MSNA) became an official Purdue University student organization. The criteria for being a minority in the MSNA became anyone who was not a traditional, Caucasian, female nursing student. 

Bell worked with colleagues to form the Minority Faculty Fellows program in 1988 to encourage and support Purdue’s administration in hiring minority faculty members. The program was the forerunner of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs established in 1993. Bell said, “The covertness of prejudice does still exist in the academic setting. That’s why it is important to have an office like this. It keeps faculty, staff, and students aware that Purdue promotes integration and equality.” 

Purdue Professor Emerita Clara E. Bell passed away in 1996, at the age of sixty-two. The Purdue University Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff honored Bell by instituting the annual Clara E. Bell Academic Achievement Award to the senior in nursing or health sciences with the highest GPA. 

The year prior to her passing, Bell said, “Purdue has no problems recruiting minority faculty and students, but does have problems with retaining and promoting them. The answer is to promote a climate conducive for them to want to remain there. That’s what minorities have here at the School of Nursing—a friendly, warm environment.” 

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