Friday, May 6, 2022

The Belanger School of Nursing

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

As Nurses Week approaches, we have the opportunity to acknowledge the nurses in our lives and thank those who work tirelessly each day. If we didn't already know how hard nurses work, these past two years have made it crystal clear. Our nurses have put their own well-being at risk as they took their place on the front line of the Covid19 pandemic - caring for the sick, acting as a lifeline between patients and their families, and all too often, offering the hand a patient holds as they take their last breath.

Schenectady has a long history of dedicated nurses working in the many hospital and medical facilities in the city. Many of these nurses were trained right here in the city at the Belanger School of Nursing, formally the Ellis Hospital School of Nursing.

Nurses at Jay Street Hospital, circa 1898. Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

In 1903, Ella Underhill, a supervising nurse at the Jay Street Hospital, began teaching five young women the basics of nursing. The new Ellis Hospital building on Rosa Road was completed by 1906, and included the Whitmore Home for Nurses. Gifted by J.W. Smitley, president of the Hospital Association, the Whitmore Home was a separate building in a similar style to the hospital. It housed nursing students along with some staff nurses. The school was incorporated in 1906 as the Schenectady Hospital Association’s Training School for Nurses and graduated its first two students, Lenita Mallery and Edith Jeannin Stanton.

The Schenectady Hospital Association’s Training School for Nurses was one of the first nursing schools in the state to receive a permanent charter in 1917. At first, the three-year program consisted mainly of learning on the job and providing needed nursing care to patients. The head nurses in various departments provided instruction to students.  Eventually a curriculum evolved and classes were held one day a week. By the early 1920s, a nurse was hired to serve as the dedicated faculty of the school teaching all the pre-clinical courses, planning student assignments, and supervising student work in the hospital.  By the 1930s, the curriculum had become a defined course of study and more faculty were hired, shifting the focus of the school from student service in the hospital to student education.  Classes increased in size and Whitmore Home became solely a dormitory for students with classrooms in the basement. Later, an annex was added to the rear of the building, increasing the number of offices, classrooms, and dormitory space. 

Student nurses in class, circa 1920. Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

In the 1950s, students took courses at Union College for anatomy, chemistry, and psychology. In 1958, the nursing school's charter was relinquished when the governance was transferred to the Ellis Hospital Board of Trustees. At that time the name was officially changed to The Ellis Hospital School of Nursing, although it had been called that colloquially for years.

In 1974, the Whitmore Home was torn down and students moved to rooms on the fourth floor of the YMCA on State Street along with their residence director Mrs. Mildred Hotaling. Classes were taught at Sunnyview Hospital. By 1976, students were no longer housed at the Y and began commuting from home or living together in apartments. Classes were now held in the basement of Oneida Middle School. By 1992, the school moved to the former Big N Plaza on the corner of Nott Street and Maxon Road, followed by a move to the Belanger Campus on Erie Boulevard in 2004.

The closure of the student nurses' residence put an end to some fun times that students enjoyed.  Nancy Wasmund of the class of 1969 remembers living at Whitmore Home with Nellie Leba as house mother. Students fraternized with Union College students who were just down the street, and some met future husbands. The annual Junior-Senior Variety show directed and choreographed by Dr. Clowe and Dr. Sullivan was a highlight of the year and an enjoyable experience for all involved. At that time there were no male or married students allowed. All classes were held at Ellis except for a psychiatric rotation at Marcy State Hospital where they worked with students from other nursing schools.     

Ann Marie Czaikowski, class of 1974, was a member of the last class to live in Whitmore Home for her first and second year before it closed. She remembers living with two to four girls in a room and developing a close camaraderie with her classmates because of living and learning together.  

Postcard featuring the Whitmore Home. Image from the Laura Brown Slide Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.

Dr. Lisa Bagdan, RN PhD, class of 1986 and currently an instructor at the Belanger School of Nursing, took her classes at Oneida Middle School. She remembers having an “amazing clinical experience. It’s something the nursing school excelled in and still does.”

In 1986, the curriculum was shortened from the 3-year program to 21 months. A partnership with Schenectady County Community College enabled students to graduate with an Associate in Science degree in Nursing beginning in 1994.

In 2013 the school moved to its permanent location on McClellan Street on the former St. Clare’s campus and the name was changed to The Belanger School of Nursing thanks to a generous bequest to the school by the Belanger Family.

Over the years, the demographic of the school has changed: students are older, male students are common, many students are married with children, and students come from many different cultures and countries. One thing has stayed the same, however; the reputation of the Belanger School of Nursing remains strong. The school has a long history of excellence and its graduates have scored consistently high on statewide board licensing exams.

In 2019, the New York State Education Department approved a dual degree program in collaboration with Siena College. The first class began in the fall of 2017 and graduated with a BS in Nursing in 2021. Currently half of the nursing school enrollment are part of the Siena collaboration and the other half are in the traditional Associates of Science in Nursing program. 

Dr. Michele Hewitt, BS DNP, current Director of the nursing school, sees a bright future ahead. “Our future will always be to serve our community and to serve Ellis Medicine. Our goal is to increase enrollment and for the student body to reflect the diversity of the community in gender, race, socio-economic status, marital status, first generation students, and age.” The success of the nursing school is evident. Every year 100% of Belanger graduates are offered jobs. Dr. Hewitt adds, “Ellis Hospital offers all our graduates a job and aspires to hire at least 75% of the Belanger graduates. We hope they’ll stay.”

Front page of the Elliscope newsletter, highlighting the nursing graduates of 1969. Courtesy of Nancy Wasmund.


Hart, Larry, The Hospital on the Hill, Chapter 25, The Nursing School, pp.158-164.

History of The Belanger School of Nursing, School of Nursing, Ellis Medicine website.

Nelson, Paul, “Belanger School of Nursing Opens”, Times Union, Aug. 20, 2013.

Wilkins, Jeff, “Years of Caring: Ellis School of Nursing to mark century of growth and progress”, Daily Gazette, May 3, 2003.