Lystra Eggert Gretter: Bayfield’s Pioneer Nurse and Public Health Educator
When she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2004, she was compared to Clara Barton, one of the founders of the American Red Cross. Her ‘tireless’ efforts in promoting nursing as a respectable profession have been widely recognized across her adopted country. However, few know that she was a Huron County native by birth.
Lystra Elizabeth Eggert was born in Bayfield sometime in September 1858. Specific details regarding her family’s early years in Canada are sketchy. What is known is that her Swiss-born doctor was one of the village physicians. Her mother was born in Canada of Dutch-descent. A maternal grandfather was a Mennonite Bishop who migrated to the United States and then to Canada in the early nineteenth century.
She inherited from her father a passion for medicine and her mother a benevolent Christian spirituality that characterized her adult life. Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dr. Eggert enlisted as a surgeon in the Union Army. The family remained in Bayfield where Lystra began her primary education. In 1866, the rest of the family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. Lystra continued her education in southern private schools.
At age 19, Lystra married John Birney Gretter in 1877. A veteran of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, her 45-year-old husband was a Virginian who listed his occupation as Deputy U.S. Marshall in the 1880 census. The same census rather quaintly noted Lystra as ‘keeping house.’ It seemed Lystra Gretter could look forward to a secure life of middle class southern gentility.
Unfortunately, in 1884, tragedy struck as her husband died suddenly when she was 26 leaving her with a three-year-old daughter. Her father seems to have also passed away by this time as together with her mother and sister, Gretter moved to Buffalo, New York and enrolled in the Buffalo General Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1886.
As a single mother returning to school, she was well ahead of her time. She graduated with honours in 1888 and was immediately appointed Principal of the Farrand Training School for Nurses at Harper Hospital, Detroit in 1889. Gretter held the position of Nursing School Superintendent until 1907.
Despite her administrative inexperience, Gretter initiated sweeping that would revolutionize nursing training. Rather than overwork exhausted women in 12-15 hour shifts that comprised more than 73-hours or more per week, the Farrand School was the first school to institute the eight-hour shift.
The reduction in floor hours was made up for by extending the nursing training system from one to two, and, in 1896, to three years. Gretter argued that, “a part of the extra time thus afforded Nurses will be spent in study and outdoor recreation.”
The Farrand School under Gretter’s supervision became a model for nursing education. A Gretter biographer, Helen Manson, R.N. noted that nursing became less an apprenticeship and more of a professional education under her direction.
Gretter established the Visiting Nurses Association that encouraged nurses to visit major hospitals to study the latest in health care innovation. A Canadian whiskey distiller, Hiram Walker, recognized Gretter’s reforms in nursing education by leaving a sizable bequest of $20 000 to the Farrand School.
Incredibly, there were few training manuals for nurses. Gretter is believed to have written the first standardized textbook for nursing training. She also formed a professional library and encouraged to students to remain current in the latest nursing procedures. The novelty of her nurses’ library attracted donations from across the continent. During the Spanish American War, Gretter recruited qualified nurses to staff the Daughters of the American Revolution Hospital Corps. Dr. Anita McGee, the hospital’s chief medical officer, thanked Gretter for her “valuable assistance in the careful selection of graduate nurses” and further paid tribute to Gretter’s nursing education system by expressing her belief that the training the nurses received was ‘so excellent’ that it “has distinctly advanced the credit of the schools.”
Indeed, in 1909, Michigan became only the second state, after New York, that required the certification of practicing nurses.
In 1908, Gretter was appointed the Director of the Detroit Visiting Nurses Association where she turned her attention to broader social as well as health care issues. Under her leadership, she established tuberculosis hospitals, lobbied for in-home nursing care and became a vocal public health advocate for Detroit’s burgeoning poor and immigrant population. She also successfully introduced the first state wide health inspections of school children and a free maternity/infant care clinic in Detroit.
One of the barriers to improving the status of nursing as a profession was that it was considered ‘women’s work’ and, therefore, of little value. Gretter’s Nursing Association formed a strong alliance with the suffragettes in fighting for women’s right to vote. Without political power, Gretter argued, nursing would never become a ‘respectable’ profession.
One of Gretter’s most enduring legacies was “The Florence Nightingale Pledge”. Although Gretter modestly credited the work of a committee over which she presided over for its creation, Gretter biographers claim that she was “the moving spirit behind the idea” for the pledge.
Like the physician’s Hippocratic Oath ‘The Nightingale Pledge’ was a statement of the ethics and principles of the nursing profession. In a 1935 revision to the pledge, Gretter widened the role of the nurse by including an oath to become a ‘missioner of health’ dedicated to the advancement of ‘human welfare.’
Until the 1970’s, this pledge to “abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous’ and to ”zealously seek to nurse those who are ill wherever they may be and whenever they are in need“was solemnly recited at graduation or ‘Pinning’ ceremonies across North America.
In recent decades, the pledge has either been dropped or substantially altered to adhere to political correctness.
In addition to helping create the American Red Cross Nursing Service in two world wars, Gretter was remained the Matron of the Detroit Visiting Nurses Association until her death in Grosse Pointe in 1951.
Lystra Eggert Gretter literally defined modern nursing as a profession of noble principles and high standards of education.
Gretter herself said that she believed “improved education, sublimated by spiritual gifts and graces, will develop nursing into a wider, more helpful ministration patterned after the example of Him who went about doing good.”
It is interesting to speculate that she learned her father’s passion for medicine and her mother’s spirituality as a young girl in Bayfield.