Diana Kimber and Louise Darche: leading lights in New York nursing
Book dedication.
Book dedication in Textbook of anatomy and physiology

A couple of years ago a kind donor gave a copy of the Textbook of anatomy and physiology from 1942 to the RCP Heritage Library. The Textbook was a hugely successful anatomy textbook designed specifically for the needs of nursing students, rather than physicians or surgeons. When I catalogued the book to formally add it to the library, I did some research to find out more about its history and origins, seeing as it was clearly a popular and successful title.

The eleventh edition – the edition donated to the RCP – is credited to three authors: Diana Clifford Kimber, Carolyn Elizabeth Gray and Caroline Emorette Stackpole.  However, the very first edition from 1894 was authored singly by Diana Clifford Kimber.

She included the following dedication at the start of the book:

‘Affectionately dedicated to my friend, schoolmate, and superintendent Louise Darche’.

Authors very commonly add dedications to their books, and I rarely pay them much attention, but something about this one caught my eye. It may have been the fact it was one woman acknowledging another – very rare in the highly patriarchal world of medicine at the time – or it might have been the use of word ‘affectionately’. Whatever the reason, I found this dedication oddly touching and decided to dig a little deeper into the story (if there was one) behind it.

Diana Clifford Kimber (1857–1928) was born in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and educated in England and Germany. She then went on to study nursing in the USA at Bellevue College, Washington State, where she met Louise Darche, a student in the year above her.

Darche (1852–1899) was Canadian by birth, coming from Lampton Mills near Toronto. In 1883 she came to the US to study nursing, after already having been the principal of St Catherine’s High School, Ontario. After completing her studies at Bellevue College she worked as a private nurse to rich families for a short time and was then swiftly appointed as superintendent of the New York City Training School for Nurses on Roosevelt Island (previously known as Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island) in New York City. In the meanwhile, Kimber had in 1887 been appointed superintendent of the Illinois nurses training school, Chicago, but she gave up that post after a year to join Darche in New York in 1888.

Kimber took on many of the teaching responsibilities at the school, not least the job of teaching anatomy to the students. She compiled her textbook based on the notes she prepared over several years of teaching anatomy classes to trainee nurses, and she strove to strike a balance between including ‘that which shall prove valuable and interesting to the nurse, while avoiding those innumerable and minute details indispensable to the medical student’. She believed it to be the first such textbook tailored to the needs of nurses rather than doctors or surgeons. It was liberally illustrated, both with original drawings and with copies of illustrations in Jones Quain’s Elements of anatomy and E.A. Sharpey-Schäfer’s Essentials of histology. In her introduction she acknowledged those two works as sources for her own, as well as seven other titles including Gray’s anatomy. She also further acknowledged Louise Darche, without whose aid ‘the book would neither have begun, nor continued, nor finished’.


Anatomical drawing and text.
Diagram of the Nervous System


The book was favourably received when first published in 1894. The John Hopkins Hospital Bulletin praised its ‘happy mingling of theoretical knowledge with the requisite technical instruction required by practical work’ and the Medical Bulletin commented on ‘a judicious compilation of the capital facts concerning the structure and function of the human body’. Kimber’s student Carolyn E. Gray supplied additional illustrations and text for the fourth edition, and was credited as a co-author from then onwards.  The book eventually ran to seventeen editions, with the last appearing in 1977: with a life of over eighty years, it was clearly a successful and useful work.


Anatomical drawing and text.
Diagram of Plan of Foetal Circulation


Darche reformed the New York City Training School for Nurses and associated hospital’s organisation and was gradually awarded responsibility for more and more aspects of nursing teaching and administration in the city. Darche presented her conclusions about the organisation of nurse training and charitable hospitals at the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy held in Chicago in June 1893, calling for greater cooperation between different training schools in order to maintain high standards, and lauding the women who had developed the training school system and continued to develop it.

Darche and Kimber clearly made a formidable team at the school and were highly regarded within the nursing community in the USA and beyond. Darche was made an honorary member of the Matrons’ Council of Great Britain and Ireland. One of their students, Carolyn E. Gray, described the pair as ‘two women whose names are written large in the history of nursing education’, and a scholarship fund was set up in honour of them at the City Hospital School of Nursing (the renamed NYC Training School for Nurses). At the annual conference of the National League of Nursing Education in 1923, Lucy L. Drown recalled Darche and her ‘friend and companion and assistant worker’ Kimber as part of the ‘profoundly earnest’ coterie of women who developed admissions criteria, curricula, standards, and teacher training at a formative period in the history of nursing.


Anatomical drawing and text.
Diagram of muscles of chest and abdomen


Darche’s friend, the nurse Livinia L. Dock wrote an impassioned account of Darche’s work in New York, vividly characterising her fight against corruption and local political wrangling: ‘The work she was called to do was not only nursing; it was a continuous struggle against evil in the concrete form of selfish and unprincipled men, who turned to their own bad ends the provision made by the city for the suffering poor’. Throughout what was clearly an exhausting struggle, and ‘amid the most repulsive surroundings’ Dock notes that Darche was always ‘cheered and strengthened by the companionship of a friend’.

All of the descriptions of Darche or Kimber always mention the other as their friend or companion: it’s clear that these women were committed and devoted to each other for many years and that their friends and colleagues new about and respected their commitment.

Early leaders of American nursing, a short booklet compiled from biographical entries published in the US nursing calendar for 1922 wrote of them:

“the loyal devotion of these women to each other and to the highest ideals of human betterment resulted in such close co-operation that the work of one is almost inseparable from that of the other”

Now, of course, we don’t know exactly what the relationship was between these two women. And that’s an argument that’s levelled against the identification of queer couples from the past: ‘maybe they were just good friends’ or ‘why do you have to make everything about sex’. But it doesn’t matter whether these two late-nineteenth century nurses were having sex with each other, as far as I’m concerned: they clearly formed a committed, loving, lifelong partnership that was contrary to the societal norms of their time. In doing so they were queering the heteronormative assumption that everyone should be aiming at a man + woman partnership in their life.

Darche was superintendent of the New York City Training School for Nurses from 1888 to 1898. In 1898, ill health caused her to have to leave the role. Kimber took over the post for the rest of the academic year. Darche convalesced for a while in Canada and then she and Kimber travelled to the UK, where Kimber nursed her through the illness that led to her death in 1899, aged only 47. All the accounts of her life and work suggest that – although she had not necessarily been in robust health initially – the demands of her job in New York certainly contributed to her shortened lifespan. Sometime after Darche’s death Kimber entered an Anglican religious order and spent the rest of her life in charitable or public health nursing, and died aged 70 at the Community of the Holy Name, Malvern, in 1928.

The author of Early leaders of American nursing wrote:

“up to the time of Miss Darche’s death they were constantly together, and all the love and skill Miss Kimber was so capable of were lavished on her friend until the last.”

What more could any of us hope for but such care and commitment throughout our lives?

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

February is LGBT+ History month.

For more about LGBTQ+ history in the RCP archives, heritage library and museum, watch our talk ‘That which never can be suppressed’ from 2022:

Sources used in writing this post

Katie Birkwood ,
Rare books and special collections librarian

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