By Marian Moser Jones, PhD, MPH
The fall of 1914, much like the fall of 2014, witnessed an urgent call for American nurses and doctors to join humanitarian missions involving diseases across the globe. Unprecedented modern warfare, not an unprecedented epidemic, was the cause of the crisis a hundred years ago.
In September 1914, 126 American Red Cross nurses sailed out of New York Harbor and into the thick of the Great War. The nurses were pioneers as trained professionals in a time when American women could not vote, and when most middle- and upper-class women did not work outside the home. They were also adventurous, agreeing to a minimum of six months of service in war hospitals, even though most had no say over which city, or even which country, they were being sent to and no control over the conditions that would meet them upon their arrival. Some, like Katherine Volk from Cleveland, Ohio and her sister Rose, had never been on an ocean liner before and suffered horribly from seasickness on the journey to Europe. Parodying the song “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” Volk wrote in her journal of the trip: “My breakfast lies over the ocean/my dinner lies over the sea/my supper is all in commotion/Oh, bring back the dry land to me.”
At a time when the U.S. was a neutral party to the war, these nurses were remarkable in their concern for suffering so far away. Aside from American elites, who were chagrined to see their transatlantic travel thwarted by war, the American public was pretty apathetic towards Europe’s sudden slide into the abyss. It was a wonder that the American Red Cross managed to raise sufficient funds to send doctors and nurses to the war zone. Even with a few high-profile donors, the organization scrambled until the last minute to collect sufficient donations to fund the mission. It was only when the Red Cross unveiled its “mercy ship”- a donated ocean liner that was hard to miss in New York Harbor, its hull repainted white with a red band, and a large electric “red cross” sign flashing from its deck – that the cause caught newspapers’ attention and Americans gave enough money to make the mission possible.
One might think that the 40 nurses on board the “mercy ship” who were assigned to Pau, France, a sunny resort town in the Pyrenees, would have been overjoyed at their luck. Others on the ship were sent to windy, chilly Paignton, England; freezing Kiev; coal smoke-covered Gleiwitz, Germany; Budapest, and Vienna. The Pau nurses were given the task of converting a local casino hotel, which overlooked the white-capped mountains and featured a palmarium (a giant tropical conservatory), into a war hospital. But with only a few chronically wounded French soldiers to care for in this idyllic location, these nurses soon became restless. It was not until late November, when freshly wounded men began arriving in trainloads from the front, “so dirty, so tired, so ragged, so sick, yet not one of them ready to admit that he is either hungry or exhausted or that his wound is more than a scratch,” wrote head nurse Alice Henderson of Baltimore, that the Pau nurses began to feel useful. Even so, when the American Red Cross called for nurses and doctors the following March to replace medical personnel who had become infected during a typhus epidemic in Serbia, the whole Pau group volunteered.
The 11 nurses in Gleiwitz had no such problems: they helped convert a theatre into a 173-bed hospital, which remained full of arrivals from the front throughout its time in service. Nurse supervisor Anna L. Reutinger of New York wrote to Jane Delano, head of the Red Cross nursing division: “Vermin-covered as they are, exhausted and hungry, with their wounds undressed for five or six days, to bathe and care for these patients is the most soul-satisfying work I have ever done.”
Despite the apparent success of these American hospitals, they all had to close their doors in September, 1915. The American public had ceased to support the effort financially, having lost interest in the war as a humanitarian cause. The nurses quietly returned home, or signed on with medical units of the nations where they had served. It was only when the U.S. entered the war in 1917 that the American Red Cross again sent more doctors and nurses to the war zone, but worked as an auxiliary to the U.S. military.
This forgotten episode of neutral American aid in the Great War illustrates the upside of American humanitarianism – that a few brave souls with needed skills are somehow willing to jump elbow-deep into humanitarian aid work even when the epicenter of a crisis is far from the U.S. But it also reminds us of the downside: we Americans can be fickle in our foreign philanthropy. When a humanitarian emergency fades from the headlines, we forget that many people remain in need. We also forget the workers still in the field, or forget to welcome them home with gratitude and acknowledge their accomplishments. This seems like an especially poignant lesson for the current Ebola crisis, and one that can be easily corrected.
Marian Moser Jones is the author of The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland College Park. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org