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Estelle Williams Thorpe, RN, (left) formerly head nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Personnel Health Services (now Occupational Health Services). Thorpe, who recently passed away, was the hospital’s first African-American nurse manager.

Yale New Haven Hospital mourns the loss of a pioneering nurse 

On Feb. 11, Yale New Haven Hospital lost a pioneer who, during her 43 years with the hospital, inspired and helped countless people – including many people of color – to become exceptional healthcare professionals.

Estelle Williams Thorpe, RN, who retired from YNHH in 1999, was not only the hospital’s first head nurse, she was the first African-American nurse manager. 

“Estelle became a trailblazer by being an excellent nurse,” said Kyle Ballou, vice president, Community and Government Relations. “She was extremely intelligent, skilled, compassionate and always focused on the patient. Those characteristics, and her hard work, earned the respect of people throughout the hospital and community.”

Thorpe graduated from L. Richardson Nursing School in her native North Carolina and worked as a staff nurse in hospitals in North Carolina. She joined Grace New Haven Hospital (now YNHH) in 1957, and in 1958 was promoted to assistant head nurse of the 5 East unit – although there was no head nurse position on units at that time. Thorpe was promoted head nurse of the unit in 1959, and in 1967 became head nurse (nurse manager) of Personnel Health Services (now Occupational Health Services). She held that position until her retirement in 1999.

Deeply involved in the nursing and local community, Thorpe received numerous awards for her professional and personal activities, including the Southern Connecticut Black Nurses Association’s (SCBNA) Mary E. Mahoney Award, named for the first African-American to work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States. She also earned the Young Women's Christian Association Women in Leadership award for demonstrated excellence in her profession and her ability to serve the community. Yale New Haven Hospital established the Estelle W. Thorpe Nursing Scholarship in recognition of her 43 years of dedication to the practice of nursing at YNHH and contributions to the community through her work with the SCBNA.

In a Black History Month article in a 2005 issue of The Bulletin, Thorpe said, “I knew I was a good nurse. If you work hard enough and stay focused on what matters most, taking care of patients … everything else – leadership, inspiring others – just follows naturally.”