News & Events

Backus nursing school’s oldest living grad turns 100

October 18, 2013

Picture it: Backus Hospital, 1934. Our country is finally taking baby steps toward recovering from the Great Depression. That year, the Backus School of Nursing graduates 12 young women who will go on to care for the sick — all trained with the highest standards of the day.

At nearly 21 years old, Margaret Semmelrock was one of the graduates of the Backus nursing school’s class of 1934. Dedicated to her vocation, Semmelrock would spend the next two and a half decades caring for others, until her retirement in the late 1950s.

With good health and a joyous spirit, Semmelrock marked another milestone achievement in her lifetime as she turned 100 on Friday, Oct. 11. As the Alumnae Association of the Backus Hospital School of Nursing celebrated its annual fall dinner and meeting on Oct. 16, it was equally as fitting to celebrate the birthday and accomplishments of the nursing school’s oldest living graduate.

A native of Jewett City, Semmelrock was born into a family of six siblings. Somewhat uncommon for the day, Semmelrock graduated with her high school diploma from Norwich Free Academy, and even more uncommon, she went on to further her education at the Backus School of Nursing.

When asked about her choice to go to nursing school, Semmelrock simply said, “I went because I wanted to do it.”

Semmelrock shared that nursing school was available to students at no charge. It was required that all nursing students live in the on-campus dormitory. The dormitory was located in the building we now refer to as the Annex. The lobby area of Human Resources once served as the living room to three classes of nursing students.

While she was completing her education at the school, Semmelrock cared for a young man who came to Backus with appendicitis. This young man’s name happened to be Joseph, who would become Margaret’s husband.

Once she completed her nursing studies, Semmelrock went on to work on the Backus maternity ward. Semmelrock’s daughter-in-law, Peggy, helped her explain that maternity nurses were not only responsible for providing care and support to the new mothers and their babies, but they also performed janitorial duties, and washed all of the bottles, nipples, diapers and gloves. They also cooked the baby formula as it was uncommon for women to breast feed in the 1930s.

From what Semmelrock described, the nurses did not provide as much clinical support as they do today. For instance, when women delivered their babies, nurses were not permitted in the room. She said the Backus medical staff had roughly three surgeons and four general physicians who cared for pregnant women and their babies.

Semmelrock said it was typical for nurses to work long shifts, at least eight hours or more, and they received their paychecks from Backus on a monthly basis. Margaret could not remember how much she earned nearly 80 years ago, but to give you an idea, Backus nurses in the 1950s made roughly $1.50 per hour.

With her nursing days long behind her, Semmelrock is proud of the family she and her husband, Joseph, started so many years ago. In addition to her two sons, she has seven grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, one great-great grandchild and another on the way.