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By Mercedes graf
sther voorhees hasson came from a military family. her grandfather served with distinction in the War of 1812. her father was a surgeon in the civil War. her brother was a graduate of the U.s. naval academy at annapolis. When the spanish-american War came along in 1898, it was her turn, and she was going to make history with it. hasson would become one of the first six fully trained nurses to serve with the army as a contract nurse aboard the “ambulance” ship Relief on its first voyage. she and the five others were all from established nursing institutions, all about the same age, and all with a desire to serve their country. The new “hospital ships,” painted white, with a horizontal band of green, were not to be armed or used for military purposes. They were also set up with state-of-the-art medical equipment. nursing in the army had traditionally been done by men, but the army learned its lesson after recognizing the invaluable work done by women in the civil War. in early 1898, congress approved the contracting of nurses, regardless of gender, just in time for the war.
accommodations and supplies were usually inadequate for the number of patients, and the women nurses, usually untrained, worked themselves into exhaustion as they tended to the wounded and dying in the most extreme conditions. With the outbreak of the spanish-american War in april 1898, U.s. army surgeon general george M. sternberg recognized the importance of “ambulance” ships in war, and he began outfitting them for immediate service.
Picking a Few Nurses From Among Thousands
after congress approved the employment of contract nurses in March 1898, hundreds of letters from nurses from all around the country poured into Washington, d.c. But no one was available to read the applications, nor had anyone been appointed to start the crucial selection process. dr. anita newcomb Mcgee, who had received her medical degree from columbian college (now george Washington University) in 1892, offered her help. sternberg was only too willing to yield this work to her capable hands and those of her associates, who represented the daughters of the american revolution (dar). By april 30, almost a thousand applications were received, and before the year was out, Mcgee personally examined nearly 6,000 in all, most from untrained women. a number of nursing organizations, some religious orders, and some groups formed for war relief also offered to supply nurses. Mcgee proposed to stay in Washington for as long as needed and work directly under the surgeon general. she emphasized the fact that “the offer which i made thru [sic] the d.a.r. differed from all other offers made or contemplated.
Lessons Learned In the Civil War
during the civil War, hospital transport was a novel project. various ships, including steamers and riverboats, were used as floating hospitals to carry the wounded from the southern battlefields to larger cities in the north, where better care could be provided. But the transports were constantly overwhelmed by the hundreds of casualties who waited to be taken on board.
Opposite top: The six fully trained nurses on board the hospital ship Relief in 1898. Congress approved the contracting of nurses, regardless of gender, in March of that year, just in time for service during the Spanish-American War. Left: The Relief was equipped with the latest advances in medical equipment and facilities for aseptic surgery. Above: Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee (right), acting assistant surgeon of the U.S. Army, examined nearly 6,000 applications for nursing positions, selecting six for service aboard the Relief. The selection according to DAR requirements (left) provided a “uniform standard” for the selection.
A Very Few Good Nurses
all others were to supply nurses, while mine was to examine all applicants, from whatever sources, and To esTaBlish a UniforM sTandard for all, recognizing the best graduates from all the good training schools, with favoritism toward none.” on august 29, 1898, sternberg appointed her acting assistant surgeon in the U.s. army—a title that was not awarded to any other woman doctor during the war. Mcgee selected six women to be attached to the U.s. army hospital ship Relief on her first voyage.
Six Report for Duty Aboard the Ship relief
although these six nurses expected to start their service on the Relief in June, it was July 3, 1898, before they were able to board. esther voorhees hasson (who would later become the first navy nurse corps superintendent) from the new haven hospital was a member of the connecticut chapter of dar. elise lampe from germany was a graduate of Bellevue hospital and came highly recommended from sternberg. Both amy B. farquharson of Jamaica and lucy sharp had attended the Johns hopkins Training school. amanda J. armistead was a graduate of the Philadelphia hospital, class of 1894, and louise J. Block of new orleans, louisiana, came from the Mount sinai Training school in new York. These six nurses had several things in common besides a desire to serve their country. They were trained nurses from established nursing institutions, and all of them were unmarried at the time they signed their contracts. They were also fairly close in age: lampe was the oldest at 37, sharp was 36, and armistead was 34. Both hasson and Block were 30, and farquharson was the youngest at 29. The Relief had been the passenger ship John Englis of the Maine line before the army acquired her in 1898. (The ship was transferred later to the navy and became “Uss” on november 13, 1902). The vessel was 300 feet in length and 46 feet in width with an average
speed of 14 knots an hour. Maj. george h. Torney, surgeon, was in command, and he was assisted by two other medical officers. he had overseen the work of reconstruction to make the necessary changes in adapting the vessel for hospital use, and he had spent six anxious weeks trying to accomplish this. (he would go on to become the army's surgeon general in 1909). The ship’s captain was frank harding; there was a first and second officer, an engineer, and a crew of 68 men. There were also 10 male nurses from the Mills Training school at Bellevue hospital in new York city, a detachment of 29 hospital corps men, and six contract surgeons, one of whom was Torney’s son. in addition to the medical personnel on board, a number of other medical officers were being transported for duty in cuba. among them was Maj. William gorgas, who would later become famous for both his research work in cuba in regard to the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever and his work on sanitation in Panama.
Esther Voorhees Hasson (opposite), one of the nurses on the maiden voyage of the Relief, later became the first Navy Nurse Corps superintendent. She recalled conditions on the ship and her wartime experiences in a nine-page memoir (above).
Serving Aboard the relief: A Well-Equipped Hospital Ship
Many changes were needed to convert the Relief to a hospital ship before she could transport sick troops in the caribbean and Pacific. in the end, at least 300 patients could be accommodated between its decks, and in an emergency, a similar number of cots could be set up. arrangements were also made for taking patients aboard by canvas basket, by hoisting boat, or by stretcher up the stair gang, which had been made wider than usual for this purpose. The vessel was lighted throughout by electricity, and it had an ice-making plant and a fresh-water distillery. it also housed a small laboratory for scientific work, and electric fans placed throughout the vessel kept the air in constant circulation.
to work in surgery and supervise the medical regimens of their patients.
The relief Reaches Cuba, and the Work Takes Its Toll
When the Relief reached siboney, cuba, the situation there was bad and rapidly growing worse. hasson wrote in her memoir: Yellow fever had broken out; malaria, typhoid and dysentery were increasing by leaps and bounds. hospital equipment, supplies and nourishment for the sick were at the lowest ebb and the never ceasing rain kept coming down. . . . We began taking on patients at once and every day brought its consignment of dirty, ill, exhausted men. Many had not had their uniforms off for days and they were too sick to care for themselves they were in a pitiable condition. a bath, clean bed and plenty of nourishment worked wonders and many were soon able to be transferred to transports going north. Those who were in urgent need of medical or surgical attention were retained on the ship. in a letter to Mrs. sarah e. Booth champion, one of the regents of the connecticut dar chapter, hasson confided her personal feelings about her experiences on the Relief: The first [trip] was the most trying as all of our patients were very ill men. out of two hundred and sixty, one hundred and fifty were ‘typhoids’. . . . We lost fifteen patients on the way north which seems a rather large percent but when the severity of the cases is taken into consideration it is really small. Major Torney had at first opposed having women nurses on the ship but quickly changed his mind after working with them. he even added that he would ask for 10 more if there had been accommodations for them. after the first voyage, he was able to add two more nurses to the staff, making the total number eight. lt. col. nicholas senn, another surgeon, also commented that on his four crossings on
The ship was also fully provisioned with medical supplies, cots, pillows, and blankets. The large surgical ward contained 74 beds and an operating room that had two operating tables. The operating room was fitted with a large x-ray machine; only 17 general hospitals in the United states and two other hospital ships, Missouri and Bay State, had such equipment. in a memoir written sometime after 1920, esther hasson recalled that the machine was in constant use after reaching cuba “not only for our own patients but for many cases of minor gunshot wounds which were brought out from shore to have bullets located and so escape the painful probing, which until then, had been the usual procedure.” her description highlights the advances made in technology and aseptic surgery since the civil War, when surgeons probed for bullets with unwashed fingers and unsterilized probes. it also points out the advantages of having trained nurses in the spanishamerican War who were now skilled enough
Personal data cards for Louise J. Block and Elise Lampe record such information as their training, vaccination, and health.
A Very Few Good Nurses
the Relief he had the opportunity to compare the work of the male and female nurses, and he “had no hesitation in speaking in decided terms in favor of the latter.” certainly the medical staff of the Relief deserved the praise that was given them as the work on a hospital transport was quite demanding. as far as the hospital corpsmen were concerned, hasson felt it would not be long before “most of the men are broken down from the hard work of carrying litters etc.” nevertheless, hasson commented sadly, by october two of the women nurses resigned “because they could not stand the hard work and the dreadful strain and two of our men nurses are at present quite ill.” government records from the period verify that four out of the six women present on the maiden voyage of the Relief resigned before the year was out. on her personal data (Pd) card (the required application blank contract nurses completed), lucy sharp noted that she was 5 feet 6 inches tall with a weight of 124 pounds. she indicated that she was strong and healthy and had always been so. Yet she was the first woman to have her contract annulled on July 31, 1898, because of acute dysentery. in regard to her short service, however, one surgeon observed: “she was an able, efficient . . . reliable nurse, devoted to her duty, untiring in energy in doing her work and self-sacrificing on all occasions. she was a woman of excellent character and was most satisfactory as a chief nurse on the Relief.” on March 10, 1911, sharp offered her services
• The spanish-american War, go to www.archives.gov/publications/ prologue/index/, and click on spring 1998 for a special issue of articles on the 100th anniversary of the war. • nursing sisters in the spanish-american War, go to www.archives.gov/publications/ prologue/index/, and click on fall 2002. • records of the spanish-american War, go to www.archives.gov/research/military/spanishamerican-war.
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“if needed in Mexico.” her name was placed on the “reserve list” of ex-army nurses, but nothing more was heard from her. she died in new rochelle, new York, in March 1912. on september 6, 1898, elise lampe resigned because of seasickness, although she stated on her application: “i am a strong and healthy woman.” she was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 158 pounds. Private remarks from another woman on the hospital ship, however, suggest that teamwork was highly valued on a transport where medical staff worked in close confines with one another. in a letter to dr. Mcgee, armistead confided: “Please don’t quote me in this matter—but to tell you the truth Miss lampe did not exert herself and did not do her share of the work—and did not get on well with the doctors in charge of the ward.” nothing more was heard regarding lampe for eight years, but in february of 1906 she asked that her name to be placed on the reserve list for army nurses. she was sent new applications, but she did not follow up. a notation on her Pd card read: “died 1920, anhalt, germany.” hasson wrote in her reminiscences: “Miss lampe, whom i think i loved best of all [the Relief nurses] has lain for several years in some little graveyard in germany.” Block resigned in october “on account of ill health.” in a note to dr. Mcgee, she related, “having been quite sick on our last voyage and still continuing to feel far from well i sent in my resignation to Maj. Bradley. . . . i had hoped to have remained under the government for sometime longer but have had at last consented to take the advice of my medical advisor and resign.” in a return letter, Mcgee wrote: “it is with regret that i learn of your being obliged to leave the ship Relief, but you must feel greatly comforted by the remembrance of your long and faithful service aboard this famous ship.” Block did not return to the service, but in 1917 she wrote to dr. gorgas, who was then surgeon general of the army, asking for his assistance in regard to pension benefits. she
Above: Louise Block resigned in October “on account of ill health.” Her letter to Dr. McGee noted that she had still not recovered after having been “quite sick on our last voyage.”
explained that she was ill with “angina attacks from high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis” and had been hospitalized for the last six months at the Mount sinai hospital, new York, where she had gone to nursing school. This was the last known contact with her, although hasson later wrote: “Miss Block lies in the nurses lot in arlington.” on her Pd card, amy B. farquharson listed her height as 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weight at 115 pounds. she was in good health at the time of her application, but she resigned on december 31, 1898, “on account of malaria.” she signed another contract on february 1, 1899, again on the Relief, and served until March 31, 1900, when she was honorably discharged. she tried unsuccessfully to place her name on the reserve list for nurses on March 18, 1900, but her request was declined because she was not a citizen of the United states. There is no record of what she did after she
A nurse in the ward on the Relief. The ship’s medical staff praised the nurses’ work, and would have requested more nurses if there were proper accommodations.
left service, but her brother informed hasson that she died in Jamaica, British West indies, on July 5, 1933.
As One Nurse Opts for Marriage, Another Has a Long Military Career
armistead and hasson fared somewhat better on the Relief and finished out their contracts. armistead, however, was the only one of the six original nurses who eventually resigned in order to be married. armistead saw 5 years and 10 months of continuous service in the army nurse corps. she served as chief nurse on the Relief from June 1, 1898, to June 17, 1900. she remained in service until 1904, having served in the Philippine islands at the general hospital Presidio at san francisco, california, and “as instructress” in the school of instruction, fort Mcdowell, angel island, california. armistead’s Pd card revealed that she was given the highest ratings of “1” for her work
and perceived as a nurse of “unusual ability.” armistead was honorably discharged april 8, 1904, “at own request to be married,” and on october 14 she became the wife of Maj. henry hunt ludlow of the United states army. They moved to oktibbeha, Mississippi, where ludlow was stationed as military instructor at an agricultural college. she continued to be active for a number of years with “The order of spanish-american War nurses,” organized by Mcgee in 1900. after her husband died in 1926, she applied for a government pension the next year and stated she was living in Washington, d.c. hasson served on the Relief until november 14, 1899, when she was transferred to the U.s. army transport Sherman for duty en route to the Philippine islands. once in the Philippines, she was appointed the chief nurse at the Brigade hospital in vigan. it was clear, however, that she was worn down by the demanding work as she requested to be relieved from duty on february 1, 1901, because of ill health. When hasson left the Brigade hospital on february 7, the commanding officer rated her
service as chief nurse “worthy of the highest praise.” she was honorably discharged from the army nurse corps on august 15, 1901, having completed almost three years of continuous duty. By 1903, hasson anticipated favorable action on the establishment of the navy nurse corps (female), and she applied for the position of superintendent. no such bill was passed, however, and she decided to leave the country and serve in hospitals on the isthmus of Panama in 1905. after returning home from the canal Zone in october of 1907, hasson was elated when the navy nurse corps was finally established by an act of congress on May 13, 1908. she decided to risk applying once more for the coveted position as head of the corps. This time she was successful, and on august 18, 1908, she was sworn in as the first superintendent of the navy nurse corps. she eventually resigned from the navy on January 16, 1911, and for the next few years, she continued her professional pursuits and was active in several organizations, including the dar and the spanish-american War nurses.
A Very Few Good Nurses
Hasson Returns to Service In World War I in Europe
The outbreak of the first World War changed hasson’s plans. she was thrilled to receive a telephone call from the army surgeon general’s office asking if she “could be ready in three days to take an emergency nursing unit overseas.” almost immediately she was serving with the army nurse corps as a reserve nurse. at 50 years of age on June 30, 1917, she was on her way to france to tend the sick and wounded with the american expeditionary forces. from July 21 to september of 1917, she served at Base hospital no. 12, British expeditionary forces; from september 22 to January 27, 1918, she was assigned to the american red cross hospital no. l; from January 27, 1918, to January 7, 1919, she was chief nurse of army Base hospital no. 66; and from January 7, 1919, to March 30, 1919, she was chief nurse of the army Provisional Base hospital no. 18. effective June 21, 1919, esther was honorably relieved from active service in the military. The surgeon general of the army stated: “Miss hasson’s record shows that her services were excellent, and that she is a highly efficient nurse. . . . she has given long and faithful service to the government.” The french government also recognized her many contributions and awarded her with the “Medaille d’honneur des epidemies.” on May 25, 1927, hasson wrote to the secretary of war asking for “proof of eligibility” for burial in arlington national cemetery. “as an ex-army nurse and also the daughter of a deceased army officer,” she explained, “i hope that my request for burial in the lot with my parents and brother will be favorably considered.” she died March 8, 1942, and was buried in the family plot at arlington as she desired. The lot is a short distance from the nurses Memorial and the spanish-american War Memorial.
note on sources
The nurse corps was formed in the regular army in 1901. Prior to that time, nurses worked under contract with the U.s. army. There are several archival sources at the national archives and record administration (nara), Washington, d.c., regarding contract nurses. Personal data cards of spanish-american War contract nurses, 1898–1939 (records of the office of the surgeon general [army], record group [rg] 112, entry 149), contain information such as name, address, place of birth, age, nursing school attended, and marital status, and even height, weight, and complexion of an applicant. These files include a brief history of service with the army and in many cases cross references to files found in the sgo doc file (rg 112, entry 26). in case files of candidates seeking appointments as army nurses, 1898–1917 (rg 112, entry 104), there are 21 boxes numbered 491–510 that contain random correspondence regarding the various nurses. for instance, nurse louise Block’s handwritten letter of resignation is contained here along with Mcgee’s letter of response. in correspondence relating to the service of spanish-american War contract nurses, 1898– 1939 (rg 112, entry 150), can be found information to, from, and regarding individual women. There are 13 boxes arranged alphabetically by the name of the nurse. efficiency reports on nurses is contained in records of the office of the surgeon general (army) nurses 1898–99, (rg 112, entry 108). a great deal of information can be learned about individual women by cross-referencing the various sources listed above. for general information regarding Mcgee and her army work at nara, see anita newcomb Mcgee correspondence/office files (rg 112, entry 230). This file contains speeches she gave, excerpts from her various papers regarding contract nurses and the army nurse corps (anc), and memoirs of some contract nurses. esther v. hasson’s Memoir, “The first Trip of the army hospital ship Relief,” is here. also see historical files of the army nurse corps 1898–1947 (rg 112, entry 103). Pension files are occasionally available for these contract nurses; e.g., in nurse amanda J. armistead’s case, she applied for a pension under her married name but was also the widow of an army officer. see national archives Microfilm Publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934. for secondary sources, particularly a description of the Relief, see nicholas senn, Medico-Surgical Aspects of the Spanish-American War (chicago: american Medical association Press, 1900). for information on hasson, especially her navy career, see susan h. godson, Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (annapolis, Md: naval institute Press, 2001). The U.s. navy Bureau of Medicine and surgery also supplied a biography of hasson as well as a copy of “The letters of esther v. hasson, U.s. army nurse corps,” by heidi campbell shoaf.
The Surgeon General’s comments on nurse Lucy Sharp state that she was “an able, efficient . . . reliable nurse, devoted to her duty, untiring in energy in doing her work and self-sacrificing on all occasions.”
Years later, when hasson wrote her reminiscences, she grew nostalgic about her days as a contract nurse on the Relief. her thoughts about the vessel itself, however, seem to reflect what many an old faithful soldier might have uttered in his declining years: “What her end has been i do not know but i like to think that she has been honorably retired from active service like so many other spanish War veterans.” P
© 2010 by Mercedes graf
Mercedes Graf is the author of several articles on nurses and women physicians in war. she has published three books: Quarantine: the Story of Typhoid Mary, A Woman of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War, and with co-author Judith Bellafaire, Women Doctors in War (Texas a & M Press, 2009). On the Field of Mercy: Women Medical Volunteers from the Civil War to World War I is forthcoming (humanity Books). she is currently at work on a book about women doctors in World War ii and would welcome any information about these women.
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