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.