Helen Dore Boylston a closer look at an MGH nurse during World War I

In the July 6th issue of Caring Headlines, we looked at the life of Sara Elizabeth Parsons, superintendent of nurses at MGH in the early 1900s, and her work during and after World War I. But many MGH nurses made contributions to the war effort. Helen Dore Boylston, for instance, was appointed head nurse of the MGH medical outpatient department upon graduating from the MGH Training School for Nurses in 1917. (The School was later re-named the MGH School of Nursing). By the late 1930s, Boylston had become an internationally known writer with the publication of her Sue Barton series for young adults. But her writing career had begun in earnest many years earlier, when she recorded her experiences serving as a nurse on the front lines during World War I. Shortly after the United States entered the war, in April, 1917, Boylston responded to MGH’s call for volunteers. MGH organized volunteer nurses to staff several base hospitals and the Harvard Surgical Unit at British General Hospital No. 22, in Camiers, France. Boylston was stationed there for much of the war.

Hand-drawn layout, Base Hospital No. 22 (Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

Boylston, who had become known by the nickname, ‘Troub’ (short for Trouble), kept a diary of her war-time experiences. Her journal was serialized in 1925 in multiple issues of The Atlantic Monthly (known today as The Atlantic), and two years later it was published as a book entitled, Sister: the War Diary of a Nurse. The first entry in Boylston’s diary was dated February 12, 1918, when she was side-lined with both the flu and trench fever. Always able to find the silver lining, she wrote that she found the combination of illnesses, “quite interesting at first, and certainly restful.”

Click here to read Boylston’s Sister: the War Diary of a Nurse

Many of Boylston’s friends and nursing supervisors, easily recognizable to their MGH colleagues at the time, made appearances on the pages of her books. Of Joy Hinckley (MGH School of Nursing, class of 1913), Boylston wrote, “She has been given the amazing job of running a laundry in Etaples for the sole purpose of washing gauze according to approved Massachusetts General Hospital methods. It was her own idea, and it has already saved the British government a good many hundreds of pounds. Nobody can say that MGH nurses are lacking initiative.” The washing she spoke of involved a meticulous, multi-step process of sterilization originally implemented at MGH in 1904. Gauze reclamation, as it was called, increased absorbency and saved money. Wrote Boylston, “Now and again in the evenings I go up to Joy’s room and we talk till all hours… the brass shell-cases gleam in the candlelight, and the rough, brown boards and blue curtains are splotched with wavering shadows.”

Above, a group of MGH nurses—the first American nurses sent to the front with a surgical unit. Back row (l. to r.): Miss Mary Matheson, Provincetown; Miss Helen Nivison, Gardiner, ME; and Miss Catherine Conrick; Front row: Miss Glee Marshall, Colbrook, NH; Miss Anna Robertson, Montreal.

Boylston described the social life of front-line nurses, including dances, parties, and the occasional trip to London for shopping and theater-going. She also wrote quite vividly about the horrors of war. One of the most chilling passages described a downed English pilot who had broken nearly every bone in his body. And soon after he was admitted, the hospital received 200 more patients who’d been gassed. With no beds available, stretchers were kept on the floor. On another occasion, Boylston was the only nurse caring for 40 orthopedic patients. It wasn’t uncommon for Boylston and two other teams of nurses and physicians to perform 90 operations in one night. On March 27, 1918, she wrote that 4,853 patients had been admitted in 10 days: 4,000 were sent home to England; 935 operations were performed with only twelve fatalities.

When Boylston returned to Boston, she was put in charge of ‘The Throat Room’ at MGH. She became an office nurse seeing outpatients diagnosed with ailments from chronic rhinitis to life-threatening abscesses, to ingested foreign objects. She enjoyed the work, she wrote, but it wasn’t enough. She felt the days, “crawled by with numbing similarity.”

Helen Dorr Boylston, c. 1928

In the 1920s, Boylston signed up with the Red Cross. After doing relief work and tending to survivors of the war in Poland, Albania, and the Near East, she settled into life as an American writer. She was best known for her Sue Barton series, which followed the professional and personal adventures of a high-spirited, outgoing, likable young woman — much like Boylston herself — from her days as a student nurse to a rural nurse, to a visiting nurse, and finally, superintendent of nurses. The series was translated into several languages, sold millions of copies, and was frequently re-printed.

Boylston, who was born to an affluent family in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1895, died in a nursing home in Trumbull, Connecticut, in 1984. She was described as fearless, intelligent, lively and congenial; someone who, “moved through life with seldom a backward glance.” Her Sue Barton series is credited with inspiring generations of young women to enter the field of nursing.

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