The Life and Legacy of Public Health Nurse Iris Shannon

Remembering a RUSH trailblazer
Iris Shannon

In the mid-1960s, the idea of having a health clinic within walking distance of urban public housing was completely new. Rush’s Mile Square Center on Chicago’s West Side was one of the country’s first clinics of this type. It was a game changer for people of color. It was also a game changer that Rush hired a young, Black woman to be its director of nursing. Her name was Iris Shannon. 

“Oh, that’s the neighborhood nurse.” That’s what people called Shannon when they saw her in the communities around Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital (the precursor to Rush University Medical Center). If they hadn’t visited Mile Square or been to the hospital to see their doctors and nurses in a while, they’d soon see Shannon coming to their door. And their doors would always open.

Public health nurses like Shannon are the conduits that bring back to policy makers, health care providers and social services providers what they’ve seen, heard and interpreted on the ground in people’s homes. They have a long history of being the go-between because the patients —especially mothers with babies — recognize them and trust them.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Shannon was making her rounds, Chicago had more than 200 public health nurses. Now we have about 30. Just imagine what a difference seven times as many Iris Shannons might have made making home visits in the communities around Rush when the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available.

Iris Shannon had many titles in her 30 years with Rush. She was a trailblazer in urban planning and policy. She served as president of the prestigious American Public Health Association, and she was a leader in the launch of the Rush Home Health Service in 1975.

I met Shannon when I was a student at Rush. I was so inspired by the energy and passion she brought to her work life. Little did I know then that my career path would travel similar ground as hers — but only because she paved it for me and many others.

I talked with Shannon when I started this reflection (she’s in her 90s now), and we had a wonderful time looking back but also looking forward. She has so much wisdom and optimism to share. I’m quite sure she still holds the title of the neighborhood nurse among her friends and neighbors, and she’s not done making a difference. She told me we still have a lot of work to do. Yes, we do. 

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