Health and Medicine

225 years of Tar Heels: Elizabeth Kemble

The first dean of the School of Nursing, Elizabeth Kemble traveled nearly 600 miles across North Carolina to better understand the state's needs.

Elizabeth Kemble speaks with students.
Elizabeth Kemble was Carolina's first dean of the School of Nursing. Here she meets with students from a graduating class in the 1950s.

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

As the founding dean of the UNC School of Nursing, Elizabeth Kemble dedicated her life to serving others.

“There is no such thing as a menial task in caring for a human being,” Kemble once said.

Kemble earned her nursing diploma in 1927 from the University of Cincinnati and then a master’s in nursing and doctorate in nursing education by 1948 – a feat that was unheard of for a woman of her day.

Before she started her job as dean in 1950, Kemble traveled across North Carolina, nearly 600 miles from Murphy to Manteo, stopping along the way to meet people and understand their personalities and needs.

“I took quite seriously that the boundaries of the University were the boundaries of the state. I felt we had an obligation to the people,” Kemble said.

At Carolina, Kemble was given one year to hire faculty, develop a curriculum, oversee construction of the School of Nursing building and dorms, find additional scholarship funding, and recruit high school seniors to start the following fall. Her first class, in 1951, was made up of 27 women, a big deal for Carolina, which, up until that point, had admitted female students only as transfer students.

By the time the school celebrated its 10th anniversary, Kemble had guided the school through the accreditation process for the bachelor’s program as well as the master’s program. Enrollment had increased to 235 students.

Kemble’s work caught the eye of the U.S. Air Force, who brought her on as the national consultant to the surgeon general in 1959. She became the first professional nurse to be ranked a brigadier general and, in 1962, spent one month traveling the world.