Gilead, Maggie

Rose Cannon interviewed Florence Beasley on August 12, 1987 in her home in Atlanta, Georgia. The audiotape and transcription of the interview are located in the “Georgia Public Health Oral History Collection” in Special Collections, Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Florence Beasley was the first mental health nurse in Georgia and as with those nurses who were trailblazers for mental health she had first been a public health nurse. She described her pursuit of mental health nursing as follows: ” Miss Floyd and Miss Lillian Bischoff got on my trail to take up mental health work. And when Lillian Bischoff gets hold of you, it’s like a dog with a bone. You don’t get away.”

Florence was born in 1911 in Reidsville Georgia, the seventh of eight children to Henry Beasley (a lawyer and owner of a Ford dealership) and the former Josephine Best a housewife. Ms. Beasley recounted that healthcare during her developmental years was the responsibility of women and that her mother and other women in the community provided nursing care for family, neighbors, and friends. She didn’t recall being exposed to licensed nurses until an older sister entered nursing school at Wesleyan Hospital (later to become Emory School of Nursing). She did remember that the town of Reidsville did have a physician who made house calls. The nearest hospital was located in Savannah, about seventy-five miles away. She stated that during her childhood travel was by horse and buggy and that a fifteen-mile journey could take all day.

As a young woman Florence experienced the introduction of electricity, the washing machine, and paved roads. She attributed her father as instrumental in getting the first paved roads in Reidsville during his tenure as a county commissioner. Ms Beasley expressed that from her parents she learned to have “a deep sense of the meaning and the responsibility of education.” The opportunity to receive a higher education was provided for all eight of the Beasley children although Florence felt there was some disadvantage because at that time the high school only went to eleventh grade unlike city schools that offered twelve years of education. Tom, the eldest, received a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1918 but never practiced law. The First World War was in progress and Tom and many of his classmates “received their diplomas in uniform,” and were sent off to the war on the following day. Tom was killed in France in October of 1918. The family was not informed of his death until after November eleventh, 1918 when armistice had been declared. This event was described as “traumatic” for her parents. This also influenced her decision not to enter the army during World War II. Instead, she pursued public health nursing as a means of “serving” her country. Public health nursing afforded her the opportunity to use her own judgment and enjoy collegial relationships with physicians. She described nursing as “a satisfying profession for me.”

In a discussion about racial relationships during her childhood and her professional life, her family was said to have had a white cook and a black laundry woman. The races were separated even though in her work environments she related taking care of black children during her pediatric rotation in Augusta, but the wards were separate. During her practice as a mental health nurse physicians saw all patients unless a black physician was present to care for black patients. The waiting rooms were segregated. “That was the way of life. . . It was a fact of life.” Black and white nurses interacted in the work place but did not engage in social activities outside of work.

Florence decided on a career in nursing because she felt herself to be “too timid and shy” for the practice of law and teaching was not her passion. Her older sister also exerted some influence on her decision to enter nursing. Initially Florence was educated at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia where she left after two years and entered nurse training at Emory University Hospital School of Nursing and received her diploma in 1934. She returned to Wesleyan College and completed her bachelor’s degree in 1936. She recalled that the nurse at the infirmary at Wesleyan was the mother of Dr. Goodrich White who served for many years as the president of Emory University.

In 1943 Ms. Beasley moved to Atlanta and was employed by the Fulton County Health Department where she served for one year. With the encouragement of Ms. Bischoff and Ms. Floyd, she moved to Minnesota and received an MPH in 1951. Her studies included clinical and theory related to mental health. Upon her return to Georgia she served as the first mental health nurse consultant for the Department of Public Health. She maintained this position until her retirement in 1968. Ms. Beasley served in leadership positions in the Georgia League for Nursing and published in The American Journal of Psychiatry and Nursing Outlook.

Copyright Georgia Nurses Association Nov 2003

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