Mary King Kneedler

First public health nurse helped fight off typhoid


Staff Writer


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.”