How Signe Skott Cooper became a nursing legend
By Käri Knutson
Scrub typhus — also known as tsutsugamushi fever — was the subject.
“We can skip this one,” said the instructor in Signe Skott Cooper’s class on communicable diseases. “You’ll never see it.”
Little did she know. The disease usually occurred halfway around the world, in Asia. Just a couple years later, Cooper Cert’43, ’48, a Wisconsin farm girl, would be stationed in India as one of thousands of nurses who volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps.
“It was the patriotic thing to do,” Cooper recalled during a 2006 interview. “But I think all of us had a little bit of a sense of adventure.”
Cooper devoted more than 60 years to nursing education at UW–Madison and within the UW System. She died July 16, 2013, having pledged her own estate and that of her sister to the UW Foundation to support the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility for School of Nursing students.
Growing up liberated
Signe Skott was born Jan. 29, 1921, in Clinton County, Iowa, to Hans and Clara Skott.
She was the second of four children — three daughters and a son. In 1937, they moved to Wisconsin, eventually settling in Middleton.
Hans was a college-educated farmer, something rare at the time. The children would try to impress him with a good report card, Cooper wrote in her memoir. “Yes, but you don’t know the capital of Madagascar,” their father would say. “Antananarivo,” they’d report back. But he’d just ask more questions.
Like most, the family struggled during the Great Depression. Her father fell ill with appendicitis. Back then, surgery was highly risky. Even getting a proper diagnosis was a challenge.
There was no such thing as health insurance. The surgeon wouldn’t operate until he was certain he’d be paid. Finally, her mother persuaded an uncle to provide a hog as payment. Precious time had been lost. Her father’s appendix had ruptured and peritonitis had set in. He eventually recovered, but the near-death experience left its mark.
“I have never forgotten the doctor who wouldn’t operate until he knew that he would be compensated,” Cooper said.
Becoming a Badger
Cooper enrolled at the UW, driving to class in her Ford Model A and parking all day in front of Lathrop Hall on University Avenue.
World War II changed everything. Nurses were in demand. Student nurses like Cooper saw staff nurses leave to serve. There were shortages of equipment. Many more nurses were needed, so much so that President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed that nurses be drafted. A nurse draft bill passed in the House and came within one vote of passage in the Senate.
As soon as Cooper finished her nursing certificate program in February 1943 and passed the State Board of Nursing exams, she volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps.
From Madison to India
Cooper was first stationed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. There was little orientation and training for the nurses, she said.
From Virginia, she went to India to serve in military hospitals as a first lieutenant. It was her first time on a plane — a C-47 with bucket seats. Her only trips in the past had been to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines and to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Penicillin was just coming into use. Nurses were not allowed to mix the penicillin powder with the sterile distilled water (“As if we couldn’t read the directions!” Cooper said) — only doctors could. But that soon changed, Cooper said, “presumably because doctors did not want to get up at night to administer the penicillin at the required every-three-hour schedule.”
There was so much disease and so little the nurses could do about it. It was before Salk’s polio vaccine, before the widespread availability of antibiotics. Her unit averaged a death a day.
Cooper’s wartime service shaped the rest of her life, both personally and professionally.
“[Nurses] carried a great deal of responsibility during the war, and we were not going back to being the physician’s handmaiden,” Cooper wrote in her memoir. “We had learned to be assertive and to demand recognition for our abilities and skills.”
Back to UW–Madison
Cooper accepted a position at University of Wisconsin Hospital in 1946 as head nurse on the obstetrical unit. “I was so busy, I didn’t have time to think,” she said. “I was in a maternity ward, and this was the baby boom years.”
They once ran out of cribs and had to use a baby bathtub instead.
She finished her bachelor’s degree in 1948 while working full time, aided by the GI Bill, which paid for books and tuition. While teaching full time, Cooper also pursued graduate education at Teachers College and later at the University of Minnesota, earning a master’s degree in education. In 1955, she joined the faculty of the Extension Division and held a joint appointment in the School of Nursing.
Cooper was involved in a number of innovative programs over the next decade, including the development of extension courses in death and dying and the care of the elderly — areas that were not added to university nursing curricula until years later. In 1966, Cooper developed one of the first distance-delivered courses at Wisconsin, broadcasting lectures from Radio Hall on the Madison campus to more than 600 nurses across the state.
She was a leader in professional nursing throughout her career, writing two textbooks and editing three others. She received numerous awards, including election to the American Academy of Nursing. In 2000, Cooper was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s “Hall of Fame”; in 2003, she was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing.
After her retirement in 1983, Cooper developed a new field of expertise: nursing history. Over the next 15 years, she became the School of Nursing’s resident historian, documenting not only the school’s history but that of more than 100 nurses.