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Sister Jules-Marie Heymans: Pioneer of Nursing in Belgium

Sister Jules-Marie Heymans

Early life and influential family

Sister Jules-Marie Heymans, born Marie-Bertha Heymans on July 3, 1897, in Ghent, Belgium, grew up in a family that valued education and intellectual achievement. Her father, Jean-François Heymans, was a professor of pharmacology and later the rector of the University of Ghent. Her brothers, Corneille and Paul, also achieved significant recognition; Corneille Heymans received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1938. Paul Heymans was founder of the Kredietbank and governor of the National Company for Credit to Industry.

Breaking barriers in education

Marie-Bertha’s journey into the world of nursing began when she graduated as a nurse in 1917. Encouraged by her father, she pursued further studies in medicine at the State University of Ghent. In 1923, she joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity (Zusters van Liefde) in Leuven, taking the name Sister Jules-Marie. She continued her medical education at the Catholic University of Leuven, becoming one of the first female doctors to graduate from the institution in 1926.

Leading the way in healthcare

In response to the evolving medical landscape and the inadequacy of existing facilities, the Sisters of Charity of Ghent established the Sint-Vincentius Clinic and an associated nursing school in 1929, with Sister Jules-Marie as its first director. Her leadership extended beyond this role when, in 1938, she played a pivotal part in founding the Catholic Association of Nursing Institutions, known today as Zorgnet Vlaanderen.

Establishing ‘Sister Jules-Marie’s School’

One of Sister Jules-Marie’s most significant contributions was the founding of the School for Nurses at KU Leuven in 1939. This institution, often referred to as “Sister Jules-Marie’s school,” set new standards for nursing education in Belgium, aligning with Florence Nightingale’s vision of scientific training for nurses.

Sister Jules-Marie Heymans
Students at “Sister Jules-Marie’s school” (© Erfgoedhuis Zusters van Liefde)

The school provided comprehensive courses, including general, scientific, and pedagogical subjects, and trained nursing teachers and future hospital managers.

A legacy of professionalization

Sister Jules-Marie was a relentless advocate for the professionalization of nursing. She fought for better training and wages for nurses and held numerous positions on boards and committees within the Belgian healthcare system. Her dedication led to the integration of her school into the University of Leuven’s Center for Hospital Sciences in 1964, allowing nurses to earn university diplomas and further elevating the status of the profession.

Recognition and lasting impact

Sister Jules-Marie retired in 1967 but remained active as a volunteer until 1985. She passed away in Lovenjoel on March 31, 1986. Her pioneering efforts were recognized posthumously; in 2024, a street in Leuven was named after her, and a memorial plaque was unveiled at the nursing school she helped establish. Additionally, the Very Reverend Sister Jules-Marie Heymans Prize continues to honor outstanding contributions in the field of nursing biannually since 1964. Historian Luc De Munck recently published her biography, “Always the First: Sister Jules-Marie Heymans (1897-1986).”

Sister Jules-Marie Heymans

I am pleased to add Sister Jules-Marie to my growing list of Remarkable Belgians.

9 thoughts on “Sister Jules-Marie Heymans: Pioneer of Nursing in Belgium”

  1. Francoise Louckx Dunefsky

    I knew Sister Jules-Marie, a leader and force to be reckoned with. In retrospect she laid the foundation for my successful nursing and healthcare career in the US. Françoise

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