March is Women’s History Month so we will be showcasing exceptional Mississippi women and related collections on the blog.
Caroline Benoist (1896-2000) was a public health nurse and educator. Benoist did not begin working as a public health nurse until 1936, but the occupation itself began in Mississippi around 1915, when the American Red Cross and National Tuberculosis Association jointly sponsored nurses in several Mississippi counties. In 1920, the Red Cross persuaded the Mississippi Board of Health to place a state nurse in their offices to facilitate statewide public health nursing activities. The state nurse determined that maternal and child care, tuberculosis, and communicable disease were the most pressing health problems in the state. Public health nurses were then dispatched to both care for and educate Mississippians about these health issues. The new Public Health Nursing office soon focused much of its efforts on maternal care. It produced the Manual for Midwives in 1922 and thereafter sent out public health nurses around the state to train lay midwives and conduct classes and clinics.1
Maternal and child health were areas in which Caroline Benoist specialized as a public health nurse. A Natchez native, Benoist acquired extensive education and training at several institutions, including Miami University (Ohio), Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and Vanderbilt University.2 She returned to Mississippi in 1936 to work as a public health nurse in Sunflower County. Benoist said, “I’d never even been to the Delta before, but I liked the Delta, even though the experience was quite different for me. I wasn’t young, but I had always worked indoors. I had worked in Baltimore, but never outdoors.”3
Benoist conducted classes on hygiene and nutrition for local people. She described these “shade tree clinics,” saying:
After we got the plantation people interested and educated, we conducted shade tree conferences, with little folding tables and chairs. We actually took our clinics to the plantation, and hundreds of people would come. While the secretary wrote the patient cards, we nurses would give the shots. The need was so great; we saw vicious typhoid, polio, and an awful lot of VD.4
In addition to the conferences, Benoist designed various items that people could build themselves. Examples of a baby incubator, crib, and potty that she designed are now in the MDAH Museum Division Collection. They were donated by her colleague Edna Roberts, former director of nursing at the Department of Health, in 2001.
Benoist’s work took her to the front lines of the struggle to improve Mississippi’s health outcomes. She faced many challenges but met them with energy and compassion. The tradition of education and prevention established by Benoist and other public health nurses improved the health of Mississippians in the 1930s and continues to have an impact on healthcare today.
Artifacts from the Museum Division collection that are not on exhibit are available for viewing by appointment. Please contact Nan Prince, Assistant Director of Collections, by email to schedule an appointment.
1 Margaret Morton and Edna R. Roberts, with Kaye W. Bender, Celebrating Public Health Nursing: Caring for Mississippi’s Communities with Courage and Compassion, 1920-1993 (Jackson: Mississippi State Department of Health), excerpt at “1920-1929: Beginnings and Focus of Public Health Nursing in Mississippi,” Mississippi State Department of Health, accessed March 2, 2012, http://msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/_static/4,10786,204,493.html.
2 Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, “Caroline Benoist Collection: Biographical Information,” University of Virginia School of Nursing, accessed March 2, 2012, http://www.nursing.virginia.edu/research/cnhi/collection/individual/benoist/.
3 Office of Public Relations, Mississippi State Department of Health, “Claim to Title V Funds ‘Poignantly Justifiable,'” Mississippi’s Health 3, no. 2 (Summer 1986), 6-7 [on file with MDAH Museum Division].
4 Ibid., 8.