Jessie Murdoch headed major nursing school

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

(Note: this is the second part of a brief biography of Jessie Murdoch, nursing administrator, who grew up in Pilkington Township.)

One day in 1922, ten years after returning to New York from her eight-year tour of duty in the Panama Canal Zone, Jessie Murdoch answered a phone call.

It was “Boss” Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City, and he wanted her to be the director of the training school for nurses at the City Medical Center in Jersey City.

She readily accepted. She had been director of nursing at the New York University’s Post Graduate School of Medicine since returning from Panama, but the job had no real challenges any more. The new position across the Hudson was a major challenge, and Jessie hated turning such a challenge down.

During her decade as a nursing administrator, Jessie found time for various outside interests. She was active in professional women’s groups, and co-founded the Canadian Women’s Club of New York.

Jessie also enjoyed the cultural life of New York, and participated in a handful of music and cultural groups. She had met Mayor Hague after an event staged by one of them.

Frank Hague was one of the most successful big-city mayors in U.S. history. He had grown up in a poor Irish Catholic tenement area of the city. Various minor officials of the Democratic Party identified him as a boy with a future, and they groomed him for greater things. In 1917 he was elected mayor of Jersey City, and would hold the office for 31 consecutive years.

Hague had been a sickly child, and his mother suffered from various ailments as well. Due to their poverty, they could not afford medical attention. His mother eventually died, needlessly, Hague believed. As mayor, he was determined that such a situation would never again befall any poor family in the city.

The City Medical Center was his proudest achievement. It encompassed a collection of hospital and clinic facilities, where any Jersey City resident could receive good care regardless of their means. He named one component, the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, after his mother.

Frank Hague was one of the first political figures to place women in key positions in his political machine. That, and his attention to health care, made him extremely popular with women voters, newly enfranchised by the 19th Amendment.

When he called Jessie Murdoch, Hague wanted her to build one of the best nurses training facilities in the country, and he believed she was the best person to do it.

During Hague’s term as major, Jessie was usually able to get anything she needed by picking up the telephone and calling the mayor. They remained friends during and after “Boss” Hague’s 31 years as mayor. They were of a similar age (he was three years younger), and they both liked to get things done quickly and without a lot of red tape.

Frank Hague took a lot of criticism of his City Medical Centre. When it was completed, it was the third largest medical complex in the United States, with 2,500 beds in its various components, and a nursing staff of 500, many of them trained by Jessie Murdoch.

His critics considered it a white elephant and a drain on the city’s resources. Hague never apologized, and always insisted that everyone had a right to good medical care.

As well as her duties as director of the nursing school, Jessie was prominent in national nursing organizations. For years she was president of the New Jersey State Board of Examiners, supervising the examination and qualification of nurses in the state. Her friend “Boss” Hague had insisted on her appointment.

The last expansion at the City Medical Center was a new nurse’s residence, a 17-storey Art Deco masterpiece, opened in 1941. Mayor Hague insisted that it be named Murdoch Hall, after the school’s popular and dedicated director.

Jessie Murdoch retired in 1950, at the age of 77. She had planned to stay a little longer, but her position had become fraught with annoyances. “Boss” Hague had retired as mayor in 1947, and his political machine fragmented soon after. By 1950 his enemies were in control at Jersey City Hall. Jessie had been too closely tied to the Hague administration, and she now found her relations with city hall severely strained, and the resources devoted to her nursing school diminished.

In retirement, Jessie Murdoch divided her time between Toronto, where she stayed with her sister, Robena Murdoch, and winters at St. Petersburg, Florida.

On several occasions she visited relatives and old friends in Pilkington. She greatly enjoyed travelling, though a couple of injuries in later years required her to use a walker to get around. Jessie returned to Panama in 1951 for the dedication of a monument to her mentor, Eugenie Hibbard.

During the 1950s she gave occasional interviews, and always dwelt at length on those early years, when, as a young adventurer, she began her career in the jungles of Panama.

“We are glad to have had a hand in the work of those early days,” she said once. “And although as women we achieved no distinct celebrity … we flatter ourselves that we played an important part in the building of the canal.”

During the 1960s Jessie spent more and more time in Florida, as her health made travel increasingly difficult. Arthritis and her injuries from falls made life a trial for a woman who greatly enjoyed travelling.

Jessie Murdoch died in St. Petersburg in January 1968, just shy of her 95th birthday. Her last journey was one way and back home, to the Elora cemetery. She never married.

All four of her sisters enjoyed careers, and for their time, unconventional lives. Her older sister Maggie, following her training as a nurse in Chicago, nursed for a time before marrying. She died in Toronto in 1944.

Mary, the third in the family, lived for a while with her Hunter grandparents, then took teacher’s training. She taught for several years in Puslinch Township. After marriage she was assistant manager of Webb Catering in Toronto. She died in 1959, suffering from acute arthritis and other ailments. Her son, Alex Murdoch Keith, became the Chief Superintendent of Welfare in Hong Kong.

Robena Murdoch, the fourth in the family, assisted her father on the family farm until his death. She then enrolled in an institutional management course at Macdonald Institute at Guelph. She worked at various localities in Guelph before retiring to Toronto, where she shared her residence with Jessie when she was in Toronto. She never married.

The fifth of the sisters, Alexena, known to everyone as Zena, took a dairy course at the OAC, with the idea that she would return to the farm to help her father. Instead, she married one of her instructors. The couple later moved to British Columbia, where they managed a dairy farm. In the 1930s they came to Toronto and bought a laundry business, which Zena managed after her husband’s death. She died in 1955.

Though she is buried in Elora, the major monument to Jessie Murdoch is the nurses residence in Jersey City. Many people have seen Murdoch Hall without realizing it. Robert Redford’s 1993 movie, Quiz Show, used it as a stand-in for Rockefeller Centre.

Two of Jessie’s contemporaries from the Elora area also had distinguished nursing careers: Ann Bye in New York City, and Mary Watson in Chicago.

Three others, a little older, also left their mark: Amy Paget, daughter of Dr. Arthur Paget of Elora, served with distinction in World War I as an anaesthetist. Edith Allan was associated with the Henry Street Mission in New York City, and for a while worked with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell in Labrador. And Isabella Turner served as nurse attached to the United States Army, and later was director of the New York Cancer Clinic.

The lives and careers of all these women, as well as that of Jessie Murdoch, deserve historical attention. I offer the subject to any student searching for a thesis topic at university.

Other than the article published in 1913 about her work in Panama, Jessie Murdoch never published her memoirs or anything about her remarkable career.
Nevertheless, she should be given a place in the front row of Wellington County expatriates whose lives have had an impact on history.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 28, 2005.

Thorning Revisited