Mary King Kneedler

Mary King Kneedler 

Early Public Health Leader

Endows Nursing

Scholarships at Duke


ALTHOUGH MARY KING KNEEDLE, 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.