Knox County holds many firsts especially in the area of accomplishments of numerous local women. This third article in our series for 2016 will focus on the life of one of the hardest working and most feared public servants ever to live in Knox County, Mrs. Mary Eleanor Collins Browning, Knox County Public Health Nurse. Nurse Browning was also known as “Miss Brownie” to the youngest children.
Nurse Browning was employed by the Knox County Health Department from August 1943 to March 1968. She was most remembered for her annual visits to all county and city schools to give immunizations during the World War II years up to the Vietnam War. At the beginning of her employment, Knox County had dozens of separate schools, many up rough rutted-out roads, which were difficult to reach.
Mrs. Browning was a determined no nonsense nurse who was always on a serious mission. Wherever she appeared, this austere hard working woman had one job to do, and that was to immunize every child in Knox County against the terribly ravaging contagious childhood diseases: whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, tetanus, and small pox. She would appear early in the morning unannounced to the county and city school children.
Upon hearing of Nurse Browning’s presence, many children would feign illness begging to be sent home; many of the youngest children would start crying hysterically when she would walk into their classrooms. A few were known to have fainted. After setting up her records along with her “shot kit,” on a nearby table, Mrs. Browning would start to work. After dipping her cotton ball in alcohol, she methodically reached for the next child, swabbing his/her arm, roughly injecting each student with the serum. She did all this without offering any sympathetic words of encouragement or praise. Some children would literally disappear from the classrooms often running into the nearby woods or fields, hiding out until school was over. It was noted that a few older children were seen jumping out of open windows fleeing to safety. In several of Nurse Browning’s student records she had written on the designated date for the vaccination, “Ran away from school.”
Charles Reed Mitchell wrote in the fall of 2005, “I doubt that there was a local individual who directly touched the lives of more Knox Countians in the twentieth century than Mary Browning. For at least three decades, no school child was ignorant of her name or appearance. Everybody knew her and had feelings about her, pro and con. And, it is safe to say, no one from those generations has forgotten her, even if he has forgotten his first date or his favorite teacher.”
Portions of this story appeared in the Knox Countian Fall, 2005, Charles Reed Mitchell, author and editor.