MGH Nursing the great war | MGH NURSES step forward

It was 1916, and throughout Europe, what would come to be known as “The Great War” had been roiling for more than two years. Although the U.S. had not yet entered the conflict, Massachusetts General Hospital was in the process of increasing its patient capacity with construction of its Moseley Memorial Building, the conversion of the west wing of Bulfinch Building's first floor to a patient care area, and in 1917, the opening of the Phillips House. As patient admissions increased by 200, the MGH School of Nursing (SON) expanded to provide additional “pupil nurses” to staff the wards. Prior to 1925, the MGH nursing staff consisted almost entirely of students, and head nurses were typically SON graduates.

Sara E. Parsons, MGH Superintendent of Nursing

Designated “MGH Red Cross Base Hospital No. 6” as staff prepared the hospital for a possible U.S. entry into war, Sara E. Parsons, superintendent of nurses, SON, was well equipped by experience and determination to be its chief nurse. In 1898 she had interrupted her career in mental nursing to work with MGH director Dr. Frederic Washburn and Dr. Richard Cabot from the department of Medicine to care for soldiers during the Spanish-American War. She rejoined them in 1909 when she returned to MGH as nursing superintendent. By 1917 the 53-year-old Parsons was a seasoned leader at MGH and in broader nursing circles, serving as president of the National League for Nursing Education and as immediate past the presidency of the Massachusetts State Nurses Association. She transferred her MGH responsibilities to her assistant, Helen Woods, and then confidently faced her new duties as chief nurse for MGH Base Hospital No. 6.

The MGH Nurses of Base Hospital No. 6

Parsons enrolled nurses who fulfilled specific requirements: registered nurse, at least 25 years old, unmarried, graduate of a three-year accredited nurses training program, and member of their alumni association. Parsons had been active in the effort to gain control over who could call themself a trained nurse. The Mass. law registering nurses had only recently passed (1910). In the run up to the war there was a move to lessen nurses’ credentials and to use nurses aides, and Parsons would have none of it.

Telegram activating the MGH nursing unit for Base Hospital No. 6

In April 1917, the U.S. declared war, and a month later, Parsons received a telegram form Clara A. Noyes, head of the department of nursing for the American Red Cross. She directed Parsons to activate the unit, and ensure each nurse had the appropriate vaccinations and had passed the physical exam that met the Government’s requirements. Of the 64 nurses activated, 55 were MGH graduates, three were graduates of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital School of Nursing chosen for their advanced training in caring for patients with infectious diseases, and four were graduates of Children’s Hospital School of Nursing. The Red Cross quickly filled “eleventh hour” vacancies, one due to a marriage and the other to a case of whooping cough. Most had graduated within the previous five to ten years. Thirty-eight had held leadership positions as head nurses, supervisors, superintendents or directors. For the first time these graduates would work within an all-RN nursing staff and directly at the bedside.

R.M.S. Aurania, one of several ships torpedoed by the Germans

On June 29, 1917 the nurses of Base Hospital No. 6 left Boston for New York. On July 11, 1917 they boarded the R.M.S. Aurania, which took them safely through the danger zone off the coast of Ireland that Winston Churchill dubbed the “cemetery of British shipping.” It was here a German submarine torpedoed the H.M. S. Lusitania two years prior, and where seven months later the Aurania would itself be torpedoed. Throughout 1917, torpedoes sank a total of 1,059 ships. The MGH nurses passed safely, however, landing in Liverpool and then making connections for their journey to Le Havre and Talence, France, where they arrived 17 days later. For the next 19 months, the Bordeaux Belles, as they called themselves, cared for soldiers who arrived in convoys from the front. Some nurses were dispatched to care for men on hospital trains. Others joined mobile surgical teams. Still others set up public health units to care for the war’s refugees.

Administration Building, Base Hospital No. 6, Bordeaux, France -- Hospital Complémentaire No. 25 (Petit Lycée De Bordeaux)

On November 11, 1918 as dignitaries signed the terms of the Armistice, Base Hospital No. 6 was actively caring for 4,319 wounded and influenza-stricken patients. The Bordeaux Belles who had served in dispatch units returned to Base Hospital No. 6. When it closed two months later, the teams had cared for 24,122 men. The story of the “unusual spirit of cooperation and congeniality among the nurses” is a story still to be told.

Hand-drawn layout, Base Hospital No. 6 (Harvard Medical Library,Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

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