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52 Nurse Profiles with Maria SmiliosMy Nurse InfluencersYear of the Nurse and the Midwife

#5 of 52 nurse profiles: Aileen Cole Stewart

By: Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN, and Maria Smilios

In celebration of 2020 The Year of the Nurse and Midwife, author Maria Smilios is dedicating a weekly column about nurses whose stories must be shared.  I am thankful that Maria has invited The Relentless School Nurse to share this important initiative with our readers!

This is week #5 of the 52 week series in this year long study of nurses and midwives. Aileen Cole Stewart is this week’s featured nurse.


The sheets were bloody, they always were. No matter how many times they were changed, the blood kept oozing, dripping from their ears and noses. The young nurse would wipe it, but it continued to trickle over their cheeks where mahogany spots had appeared. She knew in days the spots would disappear, blending into their faces that would turn dark blue from lack of oxygen. In this pre-antibiotic era, death was imminent. All she could do was keep wiping, trying to make them comfortable, until the fluid in their lungs suffocated them.

The year was 1918, and this was the Spanish Flu, the pandemic that was roaring across the globe. It horrified and terrified and confounded, but Aileen Cole Stewart refused to turn away.

Born in Piqua, Ohio, in 1893, Stewart was the descendant of former slaves, but little else is known about her childhood and early years. Her history picks up in 1914, when she entered Freedman’s Hospital Training School in Washington DC to study nursing at Howard University Medical School. Before being accepted, she underwent three months of probationary training, a kind of “test period,” where she made beds, took temperatures, served meals, and cleaned toilets.

Having passed by showing “good moral character and the stamina for drudgery,” she began three-years of back-breaking and soul-crushing training [1],  involving 12-hour shifts and stringent rules that dictated how nurses would live their lives—on their off time, they weren’t allowed to interact with interns, medical students, or other hospital workers. Broken rules brought about public humiliation by the director who would, as Stewart explained, take their nursing cap, forcing them to work “capless, in disgrace.”[i]

In 1917, by the time she passed her state board exams, America had joined the war raging in Europe. The Army and the American Red Cross were urgently calling for nurses. But, despite the shortage and being highly qualified, Stewart and seven other Freedman nurses were placed on the reserve list. The reason: Jim Crowism. The US Army refused to allow Black nurses to serve because they were Black.

Then came October 1918. The second wave of the Spanish Flu had begun ravaging America; this one was deadlier, coming on quicker than the first–by month’s end, 195,000 Americans. were dead. The Army grew desperate and anxious and lifted the ban restricting Black nursing from serving.

Image: Nkytribune

At the time the new strain emerged, Stewart was in West Virginia with the Red Cross hoping for overseas duty. But that never came. Instead, she along with two other Freedman nurses were called into the office of Major Maxwell. A discerning man, he sat under a large wall chart dotted white pins, all indicating flu-stricken areas in dire need of nurses.

Sit, he gestured to the three nurses and began…

Works Cited

[i] For more on this see: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3452837?seq=1

*Thumbnail image from army.mil

To read the entire profile on Aileen, please go here, and stay tuned for next week’s profile. To read past profiles, please visit our My Nurse Influencer page.


Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN is a Nationally Certified School Nurse (NCSN), currently in her 19th year as a New Jersey school nurse in the Camden City School District. She serves on several national boards including The American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM), a gun violence prevention research non-profit organization and the National Board of Certification for School Nurses (NBCSN). Robin is the Legislative Chair for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association (NJSSNA). She is proud to be a Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Fellow and past Program Mentor.

She has been recognized in her home state of New Jersey and nationally for her community-based initiative called “The Community Café: A Conversation That Matters.” Robin is the honored recipient of multiple awards for her work in school nursing and population health. These awards include 2019 National Association of School Nurses (NASN) President’s Award; 2018 NCSN School Nurse of the Year; 2017 Johnson & Johnson School Nurse of the Year; and the New Jersey Department of Health 2017 Population Health Hero Award. Robin serves as faculty in the School Nurse Certificate Program at Rutgers University-Camden School of Nursing, where she teaches the next generation of school nurses. She was presented the 2018 Rutgers University – Camden Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award for Part-time Faculty.

Robin writes a weekly blog called The Relentless School Nurse. You can also follow her on Twitter at @RobinCogan.

The views and opinions expressed by My Nurse Influencer contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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