Bessie Baker headshot
Centennial Spotlights

Bessie Baker

In January of 1931, 24 high school graduates arrived at Duke as the first cohort of the Duke University School of Nursing. Bessie Baker was the school’s first dean.

Baker also served as recruiter, hospital liaison and instructor.

The school’s curriculum, which focused on total nursing care with particular attention to the emotional needs of patients, aimed to produce “thinking nurses.” The three-year program cost $100 per year.

Before coming to Duke, Baker already had a long career as a nurse, receiving her nursing diploma in 1902. She worked with Johns Hopkins Hospital, both in Baltimore and at its base hospital in France during World War I, before receiving a B.S. in nursing administration from Columbia in 1922.  She was also an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Minnesota.

The opening of Duke’s School of Nursing followed the founding of Duke’s School of Medicine in 1925. Founding Dean Dr. Wilbert Cornell Davison, graduate of and former medical faculty at Johns Hopkins, was responsible for launching a nursing school and he looked to his alma mater for inspiration.

“Everyone agreed that Duke should try to get Miss Bessie Baker” to lead the school, Davison wrote.

Baker led the School of Nursing until 1938. The building that is now part of Duke’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology was built in 1930 and became home for nursing students at the time.

In 1943, after Baker’s death, the building was named for her.

Alice Cooper, medical director for the ambulatory clinics of Duke Obstetrics and Gynecology, worked on the third floor of Baker House when she started at Duke in 1987.

“What a great path she laid down,” Cooper said, “for the rest of us that came after her.”