Mary King Kneedler

Mary King Kneedler
Public Health Nurse

Mary King Kneedler was a public health nurse and educator in Western North Carolina, and served as a faculty member at Western Carolina University.

From Mary King Kneedler Early Public Health Leader Endows Nursing Scholarship at Duke

ALTHOUGH MARY KING KNEEDLER, N’36, only “wandered into nursing” after her dream of becoming a “teacher, missionary, or movie actress” was squelched by the Great Depression, she discovered in public health nursing a rewarding career that allowed her to serve her community, state, and nation.

Kneedler, who died in June at the age of 97, left a legacy to help future nurses achieve their aspirations through a bequest commitment of $100,000 to the Duke University School of Nursing. Her bequest will be added to the Mary King Kneedler Scholarship Endowment at the school, which she created in 1998 with a gift of $25,000. That initial gift was matched through a challenge grant by The Duke Endowment for a total of $50,000.

Kneedler graduated from high school at the beginning of the Great Depression. Although she had hoped to enter college to become a teacher, her family could not afford college tuition. She learned that tuition at Duke University School of Nursing was only $100 a year, and so in 1933 she applied and was accepted.

The work was extremely challenging, and only 11 members of her entering class of 35 made it to graduation in 1936. Kneedler found that hospital nursing, especially the operating room, was not for her, and she became interested in public health. Soon after graduating from Duke, she enrolled at the Peabody Teacher’s College in Nashville, Tenn., for public health training.

In 1937 Kneedler accepted a job as the first public health nurse in Caldwell County. Typhoid fever had reached epidemic proportions across North Carolina, and people were clamoring for immunizations. According to an article in the News-Topic of Lenoir, N.C., she remembered giving as many as 1,500 shots in one day and normally worked six days a week, from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 or 7:00 at night, providing care for mothers and children.

It was during this hectic time that Kneedler met and married her first husband, Robert Bailey, a furniture salesman. Bailey soon enlisted to fight in World War II, became a tank commander, and was killed in action in 1945.

Kneedler decided to further her education and enrolled in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1946, graduating a year later with a bachelor’s degree in public health. After several years of working in Alamance County, where she became supervisor of public health nursing, she went on to receive a master’s in public health nursing administration from Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York.

Kneedler then served as a nursing consultant to the State of North Carolina, eastern area, and was responsible for the state’s tuberculosis program for a year before becoming chief of the North Carolina Public Health Service in 1954, a position she held for nine years.

Kneedler remarried and she and her husband Jay Kneedler joined the faculty at Western Carolina University, where Kneedler chaired the organizational committee for WCU’s school of nursing. She was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the 13-member committee that originated the Head Start early childhood education program and well-baby clinics, and from 1960 to 1961 she was a member of the U.S. Surgeon General’s consultant group on nursing.

From First Public Health Nurse Helped Fight Off Typhoid

by Cecilia Perkins

CALDWELL – Approximately 60 years ago the Caldwell County Health Department was first opened and hired its first public health nurse.

Mary King (Bailey) Kneedler, 83, filled that first position in 1937.

Kneedler was born in Wilmington in 1913. When she was 6 years old, her family moved to Magnolia, where she grew up with one older sister and three younger brothers. Her father was a salesman for the National Biscuit Company and her mother was a full-time homemaker.

For Kneedler, however, nursing wasn’t her first aspiration in life. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, a missionary or a movie actress. Upon high school graduation, finances for college were tight for her family because of the Depression. Therefore, she returned to high school to take courses, hoping soon to enter college to become a teacher. But after two years, the financial picture still looked dim.

In 1933, Kneedler began thinking of other opportunities less expensive than college. The Duke School of Nursing was opening and the tuition was only $100 a year. She applied and was accepted.

“I guess you could say I wandered into nursing,” she said.

While at Duke, Kneedler recalls her class of 35 students dropping to only 11 who actually graduated in 1936. After the first six months it became a challenge just to “stay and survive,”

In that year, she worked briefly in an operating room which she remembers as “traumatic.”

“I lost 40 pounds and my ego was destroyed,” she explained.

Kneedler was anxious to move and heard of scholarships available through the N.C. Board of Health for public health training. She remembered a lecture by the Durham County health director while at Duke and believed this may be her “cup of tea.”

She signed up and began classes for public health training at Peabody Teacher’s College in Nashville.

Her education at Peabody consisted of English, maternal, child and school health and psychology. During her time at Peabody, her ego was restored and she became convinced public health was really what she wanted to do.

Following Peabody, Kneedler ventured to Caldwell County in 1937 where she became the first public health nurse for the county. A number of new health departments were opening across the state, departments in Caldwell and Burke counties being two of them.

The two counties organized the departments with one director but two separate staffs, The department had a director, nurse, secretary and a sanitarian.

The first health department was on the first floor of the courthouse. One room was the clinic and the other was used for the office. The department was later moved into the basement of the courthouse.

Kneeler’s work in Caldwell County consisted of conducting numerous typhoid fever clinics, veneral disease and tuberculosis control, as well as other immunizations.

When she arrived, there had been a typhoid epidemic and everyone in the county was eager to be immunized. Clinics were set up all over the county and she worked six days a week from 8 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m. She remembers giving, in one day, as many as 1,500 immunizations.

Kneeler’s work in Caldwell County also consisted of school and infant health. She counseled with the mothers about vitamin C intake, breastfeeding and sleeping schedules. Breastfeeding was just as important in the 30s as it is in the 90s, she said, because of the lack of milk, especially in rural areas.

Kneedler said there were many isolated areas in Caldwell County and people were unsure of her at first, but wearing her uniform was helpful.

She loved traveling every “little” road and would sometimes end up getting stuck in the mud. She met a lot of the people in the county by asking for their assistance.

In 1936, Kneedler said her monthly salary was $100 and she also received $50 for travel expenses. After she made her payments for her car and rent, she had approximately $5 to $10 to spend.

While in the county, Kneedler met and married her first husband, Bob Bailey, who worked with Broyhill Furniture Industries. However, the threat of World War II was approaching and Bailey volunteered for service. He was stationed in Louisville, Ky., at Fort Knox and Kneedler moved to be with him. She worked at the Louisville and Jefferson Health Department for close to a year until after her husband’s death overseas in the war.

In 1947, J.E. Broyhill gave Kneedler a trip to Europe to visit the cemetery where her husband was buried.

After her husband’s death, Kneedler returned to public health nursing in Caldwell County. Feeling a need to get away yet feeling an obligation to the people in the county, she was encouraged by the director of Local Health Services to go back to school.

She enrolled in the department of public health nursing at the School of Public Health in Chapel Hill in 1946. She graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in public health nursing.

Following her education, Kneedler was a staff nurse at Wake County Health Department for one year, and then moved to Burlington where she became supervisor of public health nursing for Alamance County. After four years, she was off to Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, where she received a master’s degree in public health nursing administration.

She returned to North Carolina as a state nursing consultant for the eastern area. She was also responsible for the state’s tuberculosis program during the year. She became chief of N.C. Public Health Nursing Section in 1954, where she worked for nine years.

In that same year, Kneedler married her second husband, Jay Kneedler. Both being fond of the mountains, they moved to Sylva in 1962 where Jay Kneedler was given the opportunity to teach at Western Carolina University’s School of Business.

Kneedler currently resides at Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community in Asheville.

Because of philosophical differences between Mary Kneedler and a new director of Local Health Services, she left the N.C. Board of Health. She eventually became involved in a variety of community projects, teaching assignments, and national study groups. She was a leading member of the committee to establish a nursing program at Western.

Kneedler said working in Caldwell County was the most satisfying in her career. She enjoyed carrying the “black bag.”

Compiled by: 
Phoebe Pollitt