Legendary nurse in Madison history

Signe Skott Cooper transformed the field of nursing through her work at UW-Madison
Black and white photo of female nurse wearing nursing garb and leaning against a building
Photo courtesy of UW-Madison School of Nursing
Signe Skott Cooper

They say Signe Skott Cooper used to park her Model A right outside Lathrop Hall when she attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late 1930s and early ’40s. When she died nearly 75 years later in 2013, she left her entire estate to her alma mater to help them build the sleek, spacious, cutting-edge School of Nursing, named in her honor. Could she have envisioned the Signe Skott Cooper Hall back when she was a Depression-era farmer’s daughter frustrated by a surgeon’s refusal to operate on her father’s near-fatal ruptured appendix because her family lacked the funds to pay for it? It’s possible. Cooper racked up tremendous accomplishments in her 92 years, and that doesn’t just happen without unrelenting vision.

According to two richly informative articles by Käri Knutson on the School of Nursing’s website, Cooper’s education was interrupted by World War II. The time she spent stationed overseas as an Army Nurse Corps volunteer transformed her idea of nursing. “We carried a great deal of responsibility during the war and we were not going back to being the physician’s handmaiden,” Cooper wrote in her memoir. She came home and used the GI Bill to finish her bachelor’s degree, then got a master’s degree in education while working full time as an obstetrics nurse at University Hospital. Her influence on UW–Madison over the next 60 years is too expansive to list here — she wrote textbooks, introduced new areas of study, developed one of the first distance-learning courses at UW–Madison and broadcast lectures to more than 600 nurses across the state. We know all this — and so much more — because after she retired in 1983, she launched a second career as the school’s historian. For the next 15 years, she documented the lives of more than 100 nurses before she was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000. Cooper wanted us to know the value and the often unsung achievements of nurses. Our 2022 Top Nurses awards are dedicated to that effort — and to her.

Maggie Ginsberg is senior editor of Madison Magazine. This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

Newsletter Subscribe Footer22 Cover Wallpaper