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The claim to BSN fame

The story behind the race to start California’s first nursing baccalaureate degree

September 11, 2019

By Victoria McCargar, University archivist

Historic photograph of MSMU nursing students
Historic photograph of MSMU nursing students

By long tradition, the Mount claims to have conferred California’s first Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing in 1952, when five laywomen and one CSJ sister completed the program founded by Sister Rebecca Doan, CSJ, in 1949.

Less well-known is the fact that there was something of an arms race under way in California. Mount Saint Mary’s and its close neighbor UCLA were in tight competition to start a BSN through the late 1940s and early 1950s, followed by other schools up and down the state. Many have claimed “first.”

Why the urgency for the BSN? Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, the profession undertook a critical self-study, and a highly influential report in 1948 by social anthropologist Esther Lucile Brown, PhD, analyzed the serious issues confronting the profession.

The traditional on-site hospital apprenticeship — the kind the Mount started offering in the late 1920s — was becoming inadequate for the postwar world. Alarmingly, a new focus on accreditation revealed that many of the smallest hospital programs were turning out poorly trained nurses. Meanwhile, discoveries in medicine required nurses to have much deeper grounding in the sciences than ever before. Graduates needed to work on an equal footing with college-educated colleagues among administrators and doctors, almost all of them men.

Nevertheless, Brown concluded, the future was bright with the prospect of more nursing specializations, the development of nursing theory (presaging Sister Callista Roy’s later work) and the growth of postgraduate opportunities, all of which required the forces of an academic institution to bring to reality.

From their running start after the Brown Report both MSMU and UCLA ramped up their programs. On September 11, 1949, Mount faculty unanimously approved the BSN, and the following January Sister Rebecca took it to the California Board of Nursing Examiners. Interim accreditation was granted less than three weeks later, and national accreditation was in place by graduation in June 1952.

Perhaps because it was bigger and more bureaucratic UCLA fell behind. It wasn’t until June 1954 that the first eight Bruins received their coveted BSN degrees.


The University Archives and Special Collections thanks nurse-author Cynthia Broze for her personal quest to document the first BSN. It can be found in Chapter 8 of her book “Nurses of Los Angeles: Uncapping the Mystery” (Los Angeles: Semper Publishing, 2010).