Mary Alice Powell Lindsay: A Life of Accomplishment


Conversations with my grandmother—delightful, warm, and informative—were like pulling memories from well-filled trunks and having the experiences of a lifetime come alive.

Many of these talks centered around her early womanhood, a time in which her goals and ambitions crystallized into the steps she would take to become Utah’s first registered nurse. This event, important as it was in its own right, has always symbolized for me her legacy of accomplishment and great womanhood.

Mary Alice Powell was born 15 April 1883, at Granite, Salt Lake County, Utah, the fourth of seven children born to Theodore Powell and Mary Ann Cunningham. Theodore and Mary had been converted to the Church in England and subsequently immigrated to the Salt Lake Valley.

From Granite, while Mary was still young, the family moved to Wasatch, where her father worked in the granite rock quarries that provided stone for the Salt Lake Temple. Mary remembered the years at Wasatch fondly as times of happiness and learning with family and friends.

“Father was always a student and had a library of books on travel, biography, and religion,” Mary said. “He owned the first set of encyclopedias in our community. Mother had a wonderful knowledge of practical psychology. She was a good manager in her home and with her children. … She was very close to us, and taught us correct principles.”

Her father, respected and adored by Mary, died three days after her seventh birthday. While recovering from a cold, he had lent a weary traveler his horse and walked the eight miles to Sandy to pick it up. His condition was made worse by the exposure, but Mary recalled that in spite of his illness, her father insisted her birthday be a happy one.

After her father’s death, the world looked “dark and foreboding” to Mary. Her mother was left with six children, the youngest of which was eight months old. Well-meaning relatives desired to place one child in one home, one child in another “until we would have been separated,” but Mary’s mother determined to work and keep the children together. The entire family remained in Wasatch for five years. During this time Mary’s mother ran “Cook House,” a boarding house for the quarrymen working on the temple rock. Mary learned the meaning of hard work in helping her mother keep up the steady routine of meal preparation, serving, cleaning, and other duties, which included the care of her small sister. “My greatest responsibility,” it seemed to Mary, “was helping to care for my little sister. One time I let her fall in a ditch, but I got her out! No special harm!”

Mary remembered that while in the eighth grade the children “often went to and from school in a buggy pulled by a horse that required no guiding. This allowed us to study the full five miles each way.” After completing the eighth grade, Mary felt that she should prepare herself to become a teacher, and she enrolled at LDS College in Salt Lake City. While there, she was asked to participate in the Relief Society-sponsored Home Nurse Course. This was a departure from the courses she had been taking in preparation for teaching, and she recalled that at that time she “couldn’t stand the smell of a hospital” and preferred to stay “out in the fresh air.” Yet the knowledge that she was asked to help others through nursing gave Mary the determination to try her best. “I was called as a missionary by the bishop,” she recalled, “and set apart to take the Relief Society course.”

Dr. Margaret Shipp Roberts was one of the instructors for the course; her wise counsel as one of the first women physicians in Utah was for Mary a source of strength, blending well with her desire for achievement. Musing in her journal, Mary recorded: “More interesting is the class every day. … Broad fields of knowledge for our improvement … are open. Is it a sin to long for something more than ordinary work? I hope not.”

While the course included lectures on regular subjects such as “The Skin” and “Temperature,” there were other topics of class discussion. “Modes of Dress for Our Girls” was a repeated lecture theme.

During this time Mary lived with the Sarah Hanson family while Sarah recovered from typhoid fever. Mary saw to the duties of the household as well as her own studies. While classes were generally interesting, Mary seemed to exhibit a certain restlessness, a longing for something more. Her journal records the single entry “ditto” many times, as well as simply “Same workday smile.”

Final examinations for the Relief Society Home Nurse Course were held in June for the year 1903. Mary, in a mood of doubt that so often follows an important test, recorded: “I have answered all the questions, but some may not be right. I trust I did not fail.” On June 23 she wrote: “Waited until I went to class before I knew. And to my joy I learned my % was 100%.” It was on that same day that Mary joined her fellow graduates in their final experience together: “We … went to the Temple (annex),” she recalled, “where we were set apart for our mission. I was set apart by Brother B. H. Roberts.”

The blessing which accompanied this setting apart took on great importance in Mary’s life. For her it was a confirmation of her talent as a nurse.

Graduates of the Relief Society Home Nurse Course were asked to “pay” for the instruction they had received by being available for a certain period to occasionally treat people as charity work for the Relief Society. Then, they could go out on their own. Mary worked with many women as they gave birth, and also with illnesses. She then worked at practical nursing for several years, and during this time spent over six months working at the LDS Hospital.

In between appointments she was asked to come home and run a boarding house while her mother went to Alta to cook and care for other boarders. This presented some conflict. Mary wanted very much to be home with friends and family yet did not appreciate the boarding-house setting. She also wanted to continue her work as a nurse and not make a career of boarding-house work.

After some months Mary sent an application for employment to the LDS Hospital. “I am desirous of being obedient,” she wrote in her journal, “but should I accept the position, if I am fortunate enough to have my application accepted, I will be going against the wishes of most of my friends.” She was offered and did accept a position with the LDS Hospital on the nursing staff, but the sense of restlessness which had been present earlier continued. She confided in a doctor with whom she often worked:

“I just wanted to go on; I wanted to be a hospital graduate, not just [do] the practical nursing. I wanted to be a graduate nurse from a hospital. I wanted tops! I didn’t want to stay at the bottom. And he said, ‘You don’t need to go anymore. You’re a good nurse and we’re glad to have you.’ Well, that was true, but I had to be a graduate nurse.”

Mary studied privately under Dr. John T. Miller, and it was through him that she met Katie Grover. The two became friends through a common quest for higher development. Both desired to find a place that would accept them into a graduate program in hospital nursing. Dr. Miller had taken his studies in Michigan, and was anxious to help the women get located. The program at Battle Creek Michigan Hospital and Sanitarium seemed especially good, but Katie had already applied “and was rejected because she was an LDS girl.”

The women decided upon a program at a hospital at LaGrange, Illinois, as their second choice. They departed for Chicago by train on 9 November 1908. “When the train pulled out and the dear ones were lost to view, what a desolate, lonely feeling crept over us and for a while the tears which had been kept forcibly back for hours came freely for some time,” Mary wrote in her journal. “But Miss Grover and I had decided to take a course in sanitarium nursing so, of course, we shall have to battle against homesickness if we accomplish our desires.”

The first night in LaGrange convinced the women that the hospital did not offer the training they wanted. They confided in the superintendent of nurses, who understood their position; and since she was a graduate of nearby Hinsdale Hospital, she took the women there to introduce them to that staff. After several interviews, the physician in charge, Dr. Poulson, expressed interest in having them become part of the Hinsdale student body. But when he found out they were from Utah, he asked the women if they happened to be Mormons; when they replied in the affirmative, he told them that they could not be part of Hinsdale.

Mary was in her early twenties, and this seemed very harsh indeed, especially so far away from home. She remembered that she got up from the table, went over to the window, and sobbed. “Now Katie was ten years older; she had more control, but I thought being out in the lone, dreary world and not being accepted was terrible.” Katie talked to Dr. Poulson over the table while Mary stood by the window. Finally Dr. Poulson said, “Girls, you’ve asked me for bread, I won’t turn you away with a stone. If it meets with your approval, I’ll write to Battle Creek and see if I can help to get you in.” This to Mary was an answer to prayer. Battle Creek had been their first choice. “I’ve always felt that the Lord helped us to get where we wanted to go. And we went!”

The Battle Creek experience was a time of learning and personal growth. Mary remembered that she fainted three times while observing her first operation. “The anesthesiologist said, ‘You’ll have to get out of here!’ but I told him, ‘No, I shall have to overcome it.’” People came from all over the world to the Battle Creek Hospital as patients and as staff members. The Battle Creek treatments involved proper diet and exercise, with the emphasis on physical therapy rather than on medication to relieve symptoms.

One of Mary’s personal frustrations was that she could not observe the Sabbath. She did not have the chance to attend church meetings and felt this to be a void in her life. While on a vacation, on invitation from one of her patients in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mary had a memorable experience. While walking in town one Sunday, she suddenly heard the strains of a congregation singing the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” The tears began to flow freely. It was almost unbelievably exquisite to hear the familiar words “All is well” and know that she could worship with fellow believers that day.

Mary was among the Battle Creek students graduating on 2 June 1910; it was almost seven years since she had completed the Relief Society Home Nurse Course, and she had indeed come a long way. She was asked to stay on and take over the supervision of the Surgical Division of the hospital. She had overcome her difficulties, and this offer was a great tribute to her capability. She wrote home, asking what their opinion of this proposition would be. “In the shortest period of time possible, I got a letter from my brother Fred.” He said: “Dear Sis: I’m the only one home at the present time. I’m speaking for the family. Don’t stay. Come home!”

Miss Charlotte Dancey, a Johns Hopkins graduate, had been the assistant superintendent of nurses at Battle Creek during Mary’s stay. She had been asked to take over the superintendency of nurses at the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City and asked Mary to accompany her as assistant supervisor of nurses. Thus, Mary returned to Utah, helping to realize her dream of being “tops” and also her desire for service to a hospital that needed expert help in building its foundation and reputation. She remained at LDS Hospital for five years.

Mary contributed to the field of nursing in another important way. When she brought the registration of nursing that she had received at Battle Creek back to Utah, she found there was no place to have it recorded. Surprised, she learned that there was no registration of nurses in Salt Lake City. Mary became part of a committee that took the issue to the Utah state legislature, and on 17 November 1914, David Mattson, secretary of the state board of examiners, authorized the incorporation of the Utah State Nurses Association. In honor of her work that helped make incorporation possible, Mary became the first registered nurse in the state.

In 1916 Mary was asked to be superintendent of nurses at the LDS Hospital. But this was a time of decision. “There was a young man who had been waiting quite a while for me to say, ‘Yes, I’ll keep house,’” she confided, and on 14 June 1916, she and Samuel J. Lindsay were married. Sam had waited eight years for her.

Soon after their marriage, Mary was called to the Cottonwood Stake Relief Society board. She worked on the committee that organized the Cottonwood Maternity Hospital, and she organized child health conferences in cooperation with the Utah State Board of Health. While her six children were growing, she continued as a supervisory volunteer at child health conferences. Under direction of the Relief Society, six sewing machines were operative in her home during World War I as women sewed clothes and other items for the soldiers.

Her husband was in the mercantile business, and he became a Salt Lake County commissioner. Later he became bishop of their ward. “I told him I would do all I could to stand by him in his positions,” Mary said, but she also felt a deep need to pursue her own personal development and to excel in managing her home. “Somebody has to keep the home going,” she told Sam. “We have this wonderful family, so I feel it is necessary for me to do that.” Mary was determined to excel in all of her endeavors.

When Sam passed away suddenly in January 1932, Mary took on the responsibility of support for her large family. She engaged in private nursing, taught many Red Cross nursing courses, and maintained a high reputation as a public health nurse in the schools and communities of Salt Lake County. This work enabled her to be home most of the time when her family was there. She was concerned about their education and found time to be a Parent-Teacher Association president in her community for three years.

Mary was a proud matriarch to her growing family. She presided at family gatherings, and her home was the center of much activity. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were always welcome, as were her many friends. In later life she was able to travel, visiting Europe and the South Seas. In Tonga she was invited to the palace of Queen Salote Topou. In 1978, Mary suffered a fall and began to weaken. She passed away on 12 February 1979 in Salt Lake City, at almost ninety-six years of age.

A life well lived possesses a beauty that begins deep within. Mary Alice Powell Lindsay had that beauty, and when I saw her lying in her casket amid delicate orchids, her chin held in regal stateliness, in death as it had been in life, the words of Longfellow came to my mind: “When she had passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.”

Yet her symphony was not silenced with her death. For those who knew her would hear the strains of it again and again, in memories that strengthened lives and enriched goals. Mary was determined to learn, to grow, to serve, to make her life the best it could be. And what a life it was!

[illustration] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

Kimberly James, a homemaker who recently completed graduate studies in history at Brigham Young University, is Relief Society Cultural Refinement teacher in her Orem Utah ward.