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Densford, Katharine J. (1890–1978)

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Katharine Densford, ca. 1970s. From the Katharine Densford Heritage Collection, Weaver-Densford Hall, University of Minnesota. Used with the permission of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

Katharine Densford was a pragmatic leader of American nursing as it gained political and academic recognition in the 1940s and 50s. She is remembered as a stateswoman whose leadership of Minnesota’s flagship school of nursing at the University of Minnesota provided the model for nursing education throughout the state and nation.

Densford was born in Crothersville, Indiana, in 1890. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and Latin shortly before World War I—a time when few women earned advanced degrees. After teaching high school for several years, she noted that “it seemed that nurses were needed more than teachers, and since I was the only member of the family free to go to war, I should go into nursing.”

By 1920, Densford graduated from Vassar Training Camp for Nurses, where she completed an intensive three-month educational program. Afterward, she completed a two-year clinical nursing experience at the University of Cincinnati. In 1925, she shifted her focus from traditional nursing practice to become the assistant dean of the Illinois Training School of Nurses and assistant director of nursing service for Cook County Hospital in Chicago. In 1930, she became the director of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

Densford was a visionary leader of the content and methods of nursing education, far ahead of her time. At a time when nursing education followed an apprenticeship model and took place exclusively in hospital settings, she led the University of Minnesota (U of M) to become the first in the nation to create a continuously operating school of nursing within a university.

Cognizant of her responsibility to make this model of education a success and show the way for other universities, Densford spread knowledge of the U of M experience and advocated for collegiate nursing throughout the country and world. In this way, she disseminated the latest thinking about nursing education and practice. In 2017, there are more than 674 baccalaureate and higher degree programs in the US. The Institute of Medicine recognizes them as essential for promoting health care in the country.

Densford displayed similar boldness in addressing professional issues outside of the university. During the Great Depression, newly graduated nurses were among the many people who were unemployed. In response, she collaborated with hospitals and the university to create a “Learn and Earn” program. Nurses participating in the program devoted part of their time to clinical practice. At the same time, they took university courses tuition-free to earn baccalaureate and advanced degrees.

When President Franklin Roosevelt proposed drafting nurses during the military buildup for World War II, Densford studied the situation and found that there were plenty of volunteers for the military. Bureaucratic inefficiencies, however, delayed and stopped the flow of recruits. After this was pointed out to the president, the roadblocks were reduced for all women and it became unnecessary to draft them. Densford then became a champion for recruiting nurses into the Cadet Nurses Corps, recruiting the largest number of women into the corps of any state in the US.

After World War II, Densford found jobs in Minnesota for 200 Japanese American nurses facing internment in California and coordinated their travel and placement. She brought the International Council of Nurses to the United States against the objections of the State Department.

As president of the American Nurses Association (ANA), Densford used her grit and parliamentary acumen to coax the organization into a unanimous vote in favor of racial integration. In 1945, she attended the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, which produced the United Nations Charter.

Densford’s global interests and influence were best illustrated by her participation in the work of several colleges of the University of Minnesota to help rebuild Korea after the Korean War. Her leadership was instrumental in helping Korean nurses establish the School of Nursing at Seoul National University. This partnership continues in 2017 and serves as a model for other internationally based schools.

The day after her retirement in 1959, Densford announced her engagement to Carl Dreves, whom she married that same year. She died in 1978 and is buried in Acacia Park Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

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Densford, K. J., and M. S. Everett. Ethics for Modern Nursing. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1946.

——— . “Laura R. Logan.” In Makers of Nursing History, edited by M. R. Pennock, 90–91. New York: Lakeside Publications, 1940.

——— . “Adequacy of Nursing Care of the Patient.” Hospitals 10 (1936): 83–85.

——— . “Community Participation in the U.D. Cadet Nurse Corps Recruitment.” American Journal of Nursing 44 (1944): 430–431.

——— . “How Shall We Select and Prepare the Undergraduate Nurse?” American Journal of Nursing 32 (1932): 557–566.

——— . “Nursing at a Mid-Century Milestone. International Nursing Bulletin 7 (1951): 8–10.

Dreves, K. D. “This I Believe about Nursing in a Changing World.” Nursing Outlook 12 (1964): 50–51.

Glass, L. K. “Katharine Densford Dreves: Marching at the Head of the Parade.” PhD diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 1983.

Gordon, H. P., K. J. Densford, and E. G. Williamson. Counseling in Schools of Nursing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947.

McKevitt, M. “Wartime Contribution in Nursing of Katharine Densford, 1940–1945.” Master of science thesis, University of Minnesota School of Nursing, 1983.

Related Images

Nursing project at University Hospital
Nursing project at University Hospital
University Hospital nursing class
University Hospital nursing class
Nursing project at University Hospital
Nursing project at University Hospital
Minnesota Cadet Nurse Corps marching into Northrup Auditorium
Minnesota Cadet Nurse Corps marching into Northrup Auditorium

Turning Point

In 1930, Densford becomes the director of the University of Minnesota’s School for Nurses (later the School of Nursing)—a position she would hold for almost thirty years.



Densford is born in Crothersville, Indiana.


Densford graduates from Vassar Training Camp for Nurses.


Densford is appointed Director of the School for Nurses (later School of Nursing) at the University of Minnesota.


Densford is elected president of the Minnesota League of Nursing Education.


The Minnesota Nurses Association elects Densford as its president.


Densford becomes a member of the Nursing Council for National Defense Committee for Procurement and Assignment of Nurses for Armed Forces and Civilian Needs.


The American Nurses Association elects Densford as its president.


Densford becomes a member of the Minneapolis Mayor’s Health Advisory Committee.


On March 3, in cooperation with Minnesota Territorial Centennial Commission, the Minnesota Junior Chamber of Commerce names Densford one of the “One Hundred Living Great of Minnesota.”


On June 12, Miami University awards Densford an honorary doctor of laws degree.


Densford becomes a parliamentarian in the Minnesota Division of the American Association of University Women.


Densford begins to serve as a consultant for the Veterans Administration’s Nursing Service in Washington, DC.


Densford retires and marries Carl Dreves.


On September 15, the American Association of University Women’s Minnesota chapter names Densford a “Beautiful Activist.”


Densford dies.