Ina Atkin was visiting nurse

Ina Atkin is seen in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — The History Center had a call recently from an elderly woman in Westland, wanting to tell us what she remembered of her aunt, Ina Atkin, and to ask if we knew more.

Ina’s niece, Doris Williamson, told us her aunt had been a visiting nurse in Negaunee, working almost 30 years for the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company before her death at Bell Memorial Hospital in 1959.

Doris knew Ina had a nursing degree from the University of Michigan, that she had traveled a bit, once visiting a brother in California, and that she was a devoted member of the Mitchell Methodist Church, or, in Doris’s words, “an avid gal for the church.”

Doris also remembered visiting Ina in an apartment over a laundry on Teal Lake Avenue. Ina was driving “a little black coupe, probably a Ford” by that time, but told Doris that for many years she traveled between homes in Negaunee and Ishpeming in a buggy draw by a blind horse.

The John M. Longyear Library at the History Center has Ina Atkin’s obituary from September 29, 1959 in its collection. It confirms what Doris told us and provides the dates of her employment with Cleveland Cliffs, which began in 1913 and ended with her retirement in 1951.

Although we do not know much more about Ina Atkin, both historical and contemporary sources provide more information on the work of visiting nurses employed by the mines.

A 2015 article by Professor Emeritus Terry Reynolds of Michigan Tech, “Muting Discontent: Paternalism on the Michigan Iron Ranges” talks of the visiting nurse program as part of a wider effort by the mining companies to both attract and hold a reliable labor source and, of course, to reduce the likelihood of labor unrest.

Other aspects of this corporate paternalism included company housing, sometimes, as in the case of Gwinn, extending to complete model towns, and company stories, that often, to the displeasure of local merchants, sold basic goods at or even below cost. Recreational facilities, gardening supplies (and contests), holiday parties, citizenship classes, and generous contributions to civic institutions all served the same purpose.

According to Reynolds, “A completely new element in the paternalistic package was a visiting nurse service. Companies hired nurses to visit the homes of employees to carry out routine health checks and offer advice and instruction in sick care, hygiene, and pre-and post-natal care to the wives and dependents of miners.

He continued, “Cleveland Cliffs initiated its visiting nurse program in 1908. By 1913 CCI had three visiting nurses working under the direction of company-employed physicians… In addition to promoting health care and sanitation, they also identified families in need of food, fuel, or clothing and kept track of pensioned employees.” Ina Atkin was one of those three visiting nurses in 1913.

It appears that the corporations took great pride in their visiting nurse programs. In 1917, an industry publication, The Bulletin of the American Iron and Steel Institute, devoted two full issues to visiting nurse programs. The introduction boasted that the nursing programs were “a fine example of the kindly and friendly spirit existing between employer and employee in the iron and steel industry.”

Many of the articles were written by doctors or mine superintendents, but one is a firsthand account from one of the nurses herself. Ann B. Murphy worked for the Oliver Mining Company in Iron Mountain. She wrote “My hours are from 8 to 5, Sunday excepted, but I am subject to the call of the doctor for any emergencies that may arise at any time. I have office hours from 8 to 9 and from 1 to 2, the rest of the day is spent in the field…

“During my office hours I take care of any minor injuries that may have occurred among my families, treat discharging ears, blepharitis [inflammation of the eyelids], prepare and give out simple remedies that may be used in the home for eczema, scabies, impetigo, ringworm, seborrhea, etc., and assist the doctor with any examinations of patients that I may have recommended to come to the hospital for medical advice. During the past year I have made 1,781 calls and inspected 175 houses.”

She continued, “Outside of this work I undertook the chairmanship of the sale of Red Cross seals in this country and raised a fund of $ 653.17… Once a month I visit the public schools, which most of the children of our employees attend. In this way I get in touch with many of our families that I could not otherwise reach. I have also given some lessons in bed-making and first aid work to the Camp Fire Girls of our city.”

The mining companies believed that not only did the visiting nurse program improve employee morale, but also that it saved lives. One doctor reported a 50% reduction in infant mortality after nurses began daily visits to homes with newborn infants, not only giving instruction in “hygiene and infant feeding,” but actually preparing food.

But there was also some tension inherent in a situation where a mining company was sending someone into a miner’s home to evaluate his living arrangements. In the introduction to one of the issues devoted to visiting nurses, the editors of the Bulletin of the American Iron and Steel Institute noted, “This work requires great tact on the part of the visiting nurses, so that the proper self – respect of the men and their families may be preserved.” Some workers, according to Professor Reynolds, nevertheless, felt that the company was spying on them.

They were not wrong. Ironwood nurse Ann Murphy said her duties included “recommendations for families who are good householders for better quarters.” At least some of the miners’ wives, however, had reason to be particularly grateful. In 1908, at the recommendation of their visiting nurses, CCI opened a rest home for the overworked wives of company employees.

CCI ended its visiting nurse program in 1951, the year that Ina Atkin retired. After her death, a scholarship was established in her name for an Ishpeming graduate who hoped to study nursing.


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