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Nursing Program Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Alumni, Friends and Faculty Reflect on Past, Look to Future

Karen Deveraux Melillo and May Futrell
Current Nursing Department Chair Karen Devereaux Melillo, left, and former chair May Futrell celebrate the 40th anniversary of the program.

By Karen Angelo

When Gertrude Barker conducted her dissertation on the self-esteem of unwed mothers in 1967, it wasn’t a popular topic. In fact, her conclusions, which supported the availability of birth control, nearly cost her a doctoral degree. 

But Barker did receive her doctorate from Boston University, one of the few women in the country with the degree at the time, and was hired by Lowell State College President Daniel O’Leary to begin the nursing program here. The first class began the program in 1968 and 33 graduated in 1972.

Since then, nearly 3,000 people have graduated from the program. 

More than 140 alumni, friends, faculty and staff celebrated the 40th anniversary of nursing on Oct. 4. The event included a dinner and tour of the new Health and Social Sciences Building, where the Department of Nursing will be housed starting in the spring. Some of the early pioneers of the program attended the event, including former dean of the School of Health and Environment Jan Stecchi and former chair of the Department of Nursing May Futrell. 

Current chair of the department Karen Devereaux Melillo told those gathered: “I have been privileged and am very proud to be standing on the shoulders of these tremendous nurse leaders who have paved the way for us today. All of their collective vision and leadership were instrumental in the establishment of the tradition of nursing excellence at UMass Lowell.”

Strong Foundation, Lasting Legacy

In 1967, when Barker tried to get the nursing program approved by the State Board of Nursing, it was opposed by the faculty of Boston University (BU) and the University of Massachusetts faculty – many who were members on the state board. With the support of O’Leary, Barker persevered. She hired May Futrell, who left her tenured professorship at BU for the opportunity to shape the program. The board immediately approved the program because of Futrell’s teaching experience and the rest is history – the Lowell State College nursing program was born. 

Futrell, Barker, Eleanor Shalhoup and other leaders who helped start the program vowed to change the teaching of, and respect for, the profession, because of the isolating and rigid experiences they faced as students and nurses in the 1930s and 1940s.

Barker trained at Salem Hospital and “hated its repressive, military-style atmosphere,” according to the book “To Enrich and to Serve: the Centennial History of the University of Massachusetts Lowell" (Blewitt, McKenna & Mayo 1995). Futrell was trained at Burlington Hospital and endured regimentation, curfews and confinement. 

Eleanor Shalhoup, who joined the faculty in 1969, was outspoken as a student at Lowell General Hospital in the 1940s. As a result, she spent many of her days confined to the institution as punishment. In “To Enrich and Serve,” she explains that she refused to become the “gracious little lady who didn’t question.”

These experiences of the program’s early pioneers helped mold a curriculum and program that built the foundation for what the Department of Nursing has become today – a nationally respected institution that gives students a top-tier collegiate experience. 

In four decades, the department has grown to include a bachelor of science degree in nursing, including the RN-BS degree completion option, a master of science degree in nursing, including the oldest family health nursing program in New England, and the first master’s degree in gerontological nursing. Student pass rates on the national licensing exam in the nursing baccalaureate program average 92 percent for the past five years. 

In the spring, the nursing program will move from Weed Hall, which has been its home since 1973, to the new Health and Social Sciences Building. Nursing will occupy an entire floor of the four-story building and will feature top-flight nursing skills, health assessment and simulation laboratories.