Edith Honeycutt: nurses' nurse

Edith Honeycutt will be remembered for her spirit of collaboration by those she mentored



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Emory Nursing Magazine


Edith Folsom Honeycutt, 39N, a beloved member of the School of Nursing, died July 22. She was 91 and had been suffering from renal and heart failure. She is survived by her daughter, Dianne McAfee, her granddaughter, and three great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Paul, and by her son, Danny.

Honeycutt is best known for her service to Emory University Hospital (EUH), where she was a longtime oncology nurse, and to the Woodruff family, including the school’s namesake, Nell Hodgson Woodruff.

"Edith was the nurses' nurse, but most of all she was the patients' nurse—there for them and their families across time and circumstance," says Marla Salmon, former dean of the nursing school, who first met Honeycutt when she interviewed at Emory. "Edith was guided by an unflagging belief that she needed to do what was right and to live out her potential, regardless of how many barriers, setbacks, or tragedies she encountered. Through it all, she never stopped striving or counting her blessings."

For those who worked with Honeycutt, her legacy is how she taught them to be a nurse.

'I'll show you how to be a nurse'

Edith Honeycutt

Jane Clark, 67OX, 71N, 80MN, was a student nurse when she first met Honeycutt at EUH. Honeycutt cut an imposing figure. She wore a very starched white uniform and cap, white hose, and white shoes.

"It was the first or second day that my roommate and I were on the oncology unit," Clark says. "Edith came up to both us and said, 'Do you want to be really good nurses?' Of course we said yes. 'Well, stick with me,' she said. We were smart enough to do just that."

Clark continued working in oncology after graduation, as did seven others in Clark's class who trained with Honeycutt. When Clark was in a doctoral program years later, she wrote about Honeycutt's influence on her. Her professor asked to meet Honeycutt, and Clark and the professor teamed up to write an article on her in 1997 for the journal NursingConnections.

In her research, Clark found no end to the amount of praise for Honeycutt from the nurses she took under her wing. "Now you've got your book learning, stick with me, and I'll show you how to be a nurse," was usually one of the first things she said to them. Honeycutt promoted a "we're in this together" atmosphere on the floor; there was no blame-and-shame culture, they said.

When she showed a nurse how to do something, she did so in a way that never left them feeling put down. In return, patient care was at its best amid the spirit of teamwork, something that Honeycutt's husband, Paul, would later come to appreciate.

Paul Honeycutt was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at age 63. The nurses who worked with Honeycutt were the ones who cared for her husband. While he lay in a bed on the oncology wing at EUH, Edith Honeycutt never interrupted his caregivers or told them how or what to do. She simply said, "You're the nurse." Before he died, Paul told her, "If I were God, I could not have had better care." "I know that," she replied.

Honeycutt retired a staff nurse. She never desired to move into nursing administration, despite numerous offers over the years. Patient care was the most important to her, she said, and she couldn't imagine not doing it.

Becoming a Woodruff 'daughter' 

Honeycutt went to work at EUH right after graduation. It was there in 1941 that she received a request that would set one course of her professional career. A doctor asked her to take over as a private duty nurse for one of his more difficult patients. He was a crotchety old man who had run off all of his previous nurses, he told her. Honeycutt replied, "Well, I won't quit, and he won’t fire me."

The patient was Ernest Woodruff, the patriarch of the Woodruff family, who owned The Coca-Cola Company. He was a frugal, conservative man, but he and Honeycutt hit it off.

"I was with him until his death in 1944," she recalled in a 1998 interview with Emory Nursing. "He never called me anything but his daughter."

It was some years later that Woodruff's son, Robert, would recognize Honeycutt's selfless dedication to his father. In 1955, at a dinner and dance to celebrate the nursing school's golden anniversary, Robert Woodruff pulled her aside and said to her, "I have never properly thanked you for nursing my pa the way you did. I want you to promise me, Edith, when I am old and worn out and they don't now what to do with me, that you will take care of me the way you cared for my pa."

A short time later, Woodruff's wife, Nell Hodgson Woodruff, called Honeycutt.

Robert Woodruff needed to go into the hospital and insisted that Honeycutt come with him. "From then on, one of the requirements of my hospital staff position included the understanding that I would be available for Mr. Robert and Miss Nellie whenever they needed me," she said.

Mrs. Woodruff would die of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1968, shortly after the groundbreaking for the then new building of the nursing school. Robert Woodruff died in 1985, holding Honeycutt’s hand. "I believe he was aware of my presence," Honeycutt said. "He knew I had kept my promise."

Woodruff's death marked the end of Honeycutt's nursing career. A few years earlier, she had retired from the oncology wing of EUH.

Nursing School, Act II   

Though Honeycutt graduated in 1939, she never really left the school. In addition to working at EUH, she was active in the Nurses' Alumni Association. She organized a fund-raiser for the association, the first dance ever held on campus. When she was a student, fun was not to be had—at least not officially. Dancing and intercollegiate sports had been banned by a former university president for fear the "evil activities" would lead young people astray. He died in 1941, prompting Honeycutt to revise the rules for her dance several years later.

She would serve as president of the nursing alumni association several times.

The association and Emory returned the attention. In the early 1980s, the association presented her its Award of Honor. The university drafted a declaration in 1986 to honor Honeycutt's "enduring loyalty" and as a "uniquely cherished friend and supporter of the students and faculty."

Edith Honeycutt

There were more recognitions to come.

A rare honor in 1990, she said, wasn't for her but for all staff nurses. A chair in the nursing school was named in her honor with a $1 million endowment. The endowment eventually would support two chairs. They are believed to be the only named chairs in the country to honor a staff nurse.

In 1997, Emory gave Honeycutt its ultimate recognition—the Emory Medal.

"I've always said that I've gotten much out of my relationship with Emory than the other way around," she said some months after receiving the medal. "I was so grateful to be admitted to school here, to be given a roof over my head during the Depression and a chance to become a nurse. Emory gave me a feeling of security emotionally and took the place of the family unit I had lost as a teenager. I found my husband here. Both of my children were born here. I met my dearest friends here. Emory has given me physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual fulfillment."