Taking the Lead: Barbara Tennien Murphy ‘47

In June 1947, the first students to achieve a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Vermont crossed the lawn in front of the Waterman Building to accept their diplomas. Of the 267 students graduating UVM that day, only two were in the new five-year nursing program: Ruby Sanderson of Winsted, Connecticut and Barbara Tennien, of Pittsford, Vermont.

At 92 years old, in the year of her 70th college reunion, Barbara Tennien Murphy ’47 reflected on her time at UVM with fondness and gratitude for being part of something important.

Few women attended college in the 1940s and most nurses lacked academic degrees. “You didn’t even need a high school diploma to become a nurse. A bachelor’s degree for nursing was very new,” Murphy said. “Getting a degree wasn’t a big deal to me, but there weren’t a lot of choices (for women). I liked math and was pretty good at it.”

Murphy comes from a family full of UVM graduates and working professionals: Her father, Jerome Tennien ’15, majored in agriculture and served on the UVM student council. He managed a U.S. government farm in Panama before settling on his family farm in Pittsford, Vermont, where he taught agriculture at the local high school. Uncles Jim Tennian ’10 and Bill Tennian ’17 studied engineering. Murphy's brother, Jim ’43, a mechanical engineer at Wright Field in Ohio, died in a test flight crash shortly after graduating. Her mother, Mary, was a nurse, and sister, Mary, attended the College of St. Rose and taught high school in Windsor, Vermont.

Murphy entered UVM in 1942, before UVM offered a nursing degree. “I started in home economics. I was not in love with it. The next year the nursing program began. I immediately knew that was what I wanted,” she recalled. “I wanted to use my brain to make my hands work, and they very nicely opened the doors to a degree in nursing. I felt very comfortable with it, I felt complete.”

Compassion and Focus

Murphy admired her mother, who went on medical calls in Pittsford with the town doctor and occasionally cared for patients in the Tennien home. One patient, a little girl about six years old, affected her deeply.

“Her leg had been cut off by a mowing machine on a farm. They hacked it off and gave her a metal prosthesis to wear on her leg. I was 17, and I felt that I wanted to take care of her,” Murphy remembered. “It was a compassion, for her and for others who needed people to care for them. My mother cared for people. She went to the neighbors and took care of things for them. Nobody talked about it, it’s just what we did. It was what I wanted.”

While at UVM, Murphy participated in the All Sports Club and lettered in Rifle, an activity taught by an army sergeant at a firing range on campus. “I liked shooting,” she explained. “I also played badminton and bowled. The university had bowling allies with duckpins.”

World War II was underway, and most young American men were off to war, so UVM students were predominantly female. The men’s dormitories became sorority housing. Murphy lived in Slade Hall. The workload was intense, she said, so she had little time for sororities.

“That first year, you didn’t get credit for nursing classes, and so you had to take a lot of classes. One year I carried 22 credit hours, which was completely insane. But if you wanted to do it, that’s what you had to do. We were the first class, they were experimenting on us,” she quipped. “I liked the work at school, and I liked the work at the hospital.”

Murphy did her nursing clinicals at Mary Fletcher Hospital, a predecessor to the University of Vermont Medical Center. With the war in progress, most of the male staff and hospital supplies had gone to the front lines.

“It was war time, and all the porters and help were in the army, so we did everything. We did the cooking of the baby’s formulas, scraping the meat of gristle for baby food and washing the linens. We made sure the babies, children and old people taken care of. We washed diapers and bed pans.”

She believes that the hard work and long days helped her become a better nurse.

“I finished my 8 hours and then at 7:00 when we went off-duty, we mopped the floors after because we didn’t have anyone else to do it. The head nurse was mopping beside you. Everyone worked together to accomplish what needs to be done,” she recalled.  “Some of the time it was boring, but we learned what you do when you don’t have what you need, and how to do it if a lot of stuff is not available.  It makes for an excellent adult life. I know my responsibility to my patients.”

Showing Gratitude

Murphy passed the Vermont Board of Nurse Registration exam to become an R.N. in 1947. She received a gold seal and second highest honors with 94 points, just one point less than Ruby Sanderson. “I didn’t mind. Ruby was a nice person and a hard worker,” Murphy said.

After graduating, Murphy taught nursing at Barre City Hospital, a forerunner to Central Vermont Medical Center, and then worked at the Boston Children's Hospital. In this period, she experienced an event that shaped her outlook on life and informed her future relationships.

The polio epidemic was in full swing in the late 1940s, and the young nurse Tennien was assigned to manage the hospital’s polio ward. Her unit included the infectious disease laboratory where microbiologist John Franklin Enders cultivated poliovirus for vaccine development (for which he received the 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine). He grew the virus in human cells --  fecal matter --  and it was Nurse Tennien’s job to collect stool specimens, prepare them properly and send them to the lab.

“One day, someone bumped into me in the hall -- I thought it was one of the underlings,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I know who you are Miss T. I couldn’t do my job if you didn’t do yours so well.’ It was John Enders!” His praise resonated with the young nurse, and she never forgot that feeling.  

“He admitted that other people under him doing the scut work are equally important because they keep him going. It wasn’t an inspiring thing to do, collecting smelly stools, but he couldn’t have grown the polio virus without me. I’ve always tried to make sure the people under me knew they were appreciated.”

She married William Murphy, an aircraft engineer she met on a blind date arranged by her assistant head nurse. Eventually they settled in Connecticut where Bill worked at Pratt & Whitney, and together they raised five children, a girl followed by four boys.

She attended graduate school at Boston University, studying for a Masters degree in nursing. She completed all of the coursework, but never wrote her thesis. “I had all the knowledge and I always worked, but I never tried to establish a big career because I had six others I was taking care of.”

Murphy worked in a nursing home at night so she could care for her children during the day. “People would say to me, ‘How do you take care of an eight-room house and five kids and volunteer in the school library and work nights in a nursing home?’ Well, you put one foot in front of the other and keep slogging along – it’s all good,” she said.

A Full Heart

Working with elders in a nursing home amplified Murphy’s great appreciation for the power of love in healing. She recalled, “We had two old ladies in adjoining beds. One was dying, and the woman in the bed next to her said, ‘Move that bureau so that I can be next to her.’ Margaret held her hand all night and pulled her through it. She didn’t die. We gave her the oxygen, and she gave her the love.”

Murphy also taught math at Saint Francis School of Nursing in Hartford, Connecticut, teaching students how to calculate percentages for solutions and medications. “In those days, the nurses on the floor mixed up their own IV’s, it didn’t come out of the pharmacy,” she explained. “We didn’t have IV teams or drip machines. Now that seems like ancient history.”

She retired from Manchester Memorial Hospital in Manchester, Connecticut, in 1987 at age 62, when her husband became ill and required constant care. She and Bill moved to Putney, Vermont, and when he passed she moved in with her children. She only recently stopped volunteering for her church, visiting the sick and washing alter linens. Murphy stays fit and spry with daily walks on a treadmill, healthy diet, reading books and playing board games with her eight grandchildren. She enjoys keeping up with health science news and reading scholarly articles online. She’s honored to represent the first generation of college-educated nurses, and delighted to watch the profession’s evolution and progress.

“I follow nursing and the sciences. There are so many things in my life now that people speak of so routinely, that didn’t exist before. I’ve done it all, from prenatal to old people’s homes, and I’ve had a ball,” she reflected. “Nursing is what I am. I’m proud to see the young women who work in labs or go into other countries and use their education.”




Janet Lynn Essman Franz
Barbara Murphy celebrated her 60th year reunion at UVM in 2007.
The telegram sent in 1947 to inform Ms.Tennien she passed the R.N. board exam.