Julia (McCatty) Collymore, NP, knew she wanted to be a nurse since she was 5 years old. But by the time she was ready to enter college, it was the 1950s — an era rife with racial discrimination and one that deprived Black people in the U.S. of legal protections guaranteeing equal access to education, employment and many other civil rights.
Despite the challenges Collymore expected to face as a Black woman entering the health care field, she was determined to make her dream a reality. In 1956, she did just that when she became the first Black person to graduate from the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital School of Nursing.
Established in 1912 on hospital grounds by famed nurse leader Carrie Hall, the School of Nursing reformed nursing education through its three-year academic curriculum focused on service, professionalism and scientific training. By the time the school closed in 1985, more than 2,600 nurses had graduated from its nationally acclaimed program.
Catherine Pate, Brigham’s hospital archivist, recently learned about Collymore, now 89 years old, through Peter Bent Brigham Hospital School of Nursing alumni historian Carol McGarigle and “immediately wanted to talk to her.”
“When Mrs. Collymore said she would love to talk to me too, I was delighted,” Pate said. “Getting her story into the BWH Archives helps fulfill a collecting priority that we have: developing diversity and inclusion in the historical record.”
In a wide-ranging conversation about her life and career, Collymore recently visited the Brigham to participate in an oral history interview with Pate and Sasha DuBois, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, a nursing director at the Brigham and president of the New England Regional Black Nurses Association. A recording and transcript of the hour-long interview is available in Countway’s digital archives.
DuBois later said it was “an honor and a privilege to learn from such a trailblazer,” especially with knowledge that today’s advanced practice nurses “all stand on her shoulders.”
“Her nursing knowledge and her cultural wisdom were evident, and she used those skills to broaden her nursing scope and advance her career,” DuBois said. “Despite her humbleness, she experienced great achievements. She kept her patients at the center as her why, and she utilized her career to prioritize her family as her who. Lastly, a constant that was evident was that we must know our worth and never give up. We must never give up on our patients, we must never give up on ourselves, and we must never give up on our profession. We must push through. All of us must push through.”
Pate said the exchange between Collymore and DuBois — comparing their experiences as nurses, past and present — was the most memorable part of the interview for her.
“I learned about how things have changed and how they haven’t in the art of patient care, and that there is still work to be done to achieve equity, even after more than 50 years,” Pate said. “I hope people who view the interview feel the indomitable spirit of Mrs. Collymore, who approached her career in nursing with joy, humor and confidence — gleefully ignoring anyone who ever said to her, ‘No, you can’t.’”
‘Here I Am’
Collymore was born in the South End on July 30, 1934, to Jamaican immigrant parents. They urged their children to obtain an education and frequently asked them what profession they wanted to pursue.
“I was about 5 or 6 years old, and I said, ‘I’m going to be a nurse,’” Collymore remembered.
Her determination to enter nursing never wavered, even when her high school guidance counselor told Collymore she could be a licensed practical nurse, but not a registered nurse. While both roles are vital in health care organizations, including the Brigham, the registered nurse role requires additional education and has a wider scope of practice. With her sights set on her dream, Collymore said she “ignored” the counselor’s advice and went on to apply to three nursing schools.
However, despite passing their entrance exams, Collymore was rejected because they had reached their “quota for coloreds,” she recalled during the interview.
“So, my father said to me, ‘OK, you’re not going to sit around here and do nothing for this year until you reapply,’” Collymore said, “so I took classes at Boston University.”
After reapplying to several more nursing schools, she received her acceptance letter from the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital School of Nursing and immediately knew that it would be the right fit.
Throughout her time in nursing school, Collymore had no inkling she was the first Black woman to attend and remembered being treated no differently by her superiors and colleagues.
One exception to that occurred when a graduate nurse confronted Collymore, then a nursing student, on the first day she wore her nurse uniform. But with her characteristic grace and charm, Collymore brushed off the intrusion.
“She said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I just looked at her … and I said to her, ‘Well, I applied. I was accepted, and here I am.’ And that was it,” Collymore said.
During her time in nursing school, Collymore was eager to gain experience. She was one of the few in her class to jump on the opportunity to work in the emergency room and remembered bonding with police officers who patrolled Brigham Circle and ultimately made her feel safe.
“They would come in and sit with me,” Collymore said. “I had my protection.”
When Collymore graduated from nursing school in 1956, she worked as head nurse in Peter Bent Brigham Hospital’s anesthesia recovery room. In 1963, she became an operating room nurse at Mount Auburn Hospital, then a staff nurse at Boston Lying-in Hospital in 1968, and ultimately moved to Tufts University Health Services in 1972, where she remained on staff until her retirement in 1997.
In 1976, Collymore enrolled in a new program at the Brigham, where she spent a year training to be a nurse practitioner while continuing to work at Tufts. After obtaining her nurse practitioner certification, she sought out opportunities to earn extra income while her son was in college — first at an after-hours clinic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at Charles Circle Clinic, a former women’s health clinic in Back Bay.
During her nurse practitioner years at Tufts, Collymore cared for female employees in the university’s building and grounds department. She observed that many of the women, most of whom were immigrants with limited or no English proficiency, lacked regular access to health care and information. This inspired her to launch a women’s health class for them at Tufts.
“I talked to them and gave them handouts they could share with their children,” she said. “Somebody could interpret for them if they couldn’t understand.”
Later, DuBois reflected on what it was like to hear about all that Collymore achieved and overcame.
“Although we’ve made great strides in nursing, we still have a long way to go regarding equity and inclusion. Mrs. Collymore told a story about how one of her fellow students questioned her as to why she was there or how she got into the school. Unfortunately, that question still happens today as Black nurses’ competency is questioned, and it has to be proven rather than assumed. It doesn’t matter what credentials are on your badge. Today, we are still having to stand up in the face of doubt against bias,” she said. “Hearing Mrs. Collymore tell her story about her nursing journey was extremely encouraging and validating. She was and is a trailblazer in her own right, and she is someone who persevered to break barriers so that opportunities could be easier for nurses such as myself.”