Category Archives: Nursing

Edith Cavell, Nurse, Humanitarian, and Traitor?


It’s not unheard of for nurses to serve in extraordinary ways, but Edith Cavell went far beyond her nursing duties during World War I. The British nurse and patriot was executed for treason during World War I. Both the British and American governments would propagandize her death to bolster support for the Allied cause.

Cavell was born on December 4, 1865. She trained at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes and earned a reputation as a wonderfully capable nurse. In 1907, she was recruited by Dr. Antoine Depage to be matron of the newly established L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees in Brussels. Cavell flourished there, and by 1910 she “felt that the profession of nursing [had] gained sufficient foothold in Belgium” to warrant a scholarly journal for the discipline. She launched L’infirmiere that same year.

An Accomplished Nurse with a Humanitarian Mission

By 1911, Cavell was the training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium. When World War I broke out, the Red Cross assumed control of Cavell’s hospitals. Cavell, famous for saying “Patriotism is not enough,” threw herself into her work, saving the lives of countless soldiers on both sides of the war.



Cavell’s story was adapted for the silver screen, first as propaganda in 1919, and again in 1939 when it revived anti-German sentiments. 

Cavell was one of many nurses recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to gather intelligence on the Germans. But in November 1914, she put these duties aside to begin funneling British and French soldiers out of Belgium and into neutral Holland. Cavell tirelessly dedicated herself to these efforts, eventually raising suspicion. On August 3, 1915, Cavell was arrested by the Germans.

Although Cavell had indeed committed espionage, the Germans chose to try her for treason. Cavell was incredibly outspoken after her arrest, making no attempt to defend herself. She openly admitted her actions in three separate written statements and multiple verbal interrogations. Unfortunately for Cavell, under the auspices of the first Geneva Convention, the death penalty was a permissible punishment for treason.

Edith-Cavell-NursingThe British claimed that their hands were tied in the matter. The US government did put some pressure on Germany, reminding German officials that the country’s public reputation was already quite tarnished. Only one German intervened on Cavell’s behalf: Baron von der Lancken argued that Cavell should be treated with moderation because she had saved so many German lives. But General von Saubozweig insisted that Cavell be executed swiftly. Of the five people arrested in the case, only Cavell and one other were actually executed; the rest were later released.

Fuel for Allied Propaganda

There are numerous accounts of nursing from World War I, such as Grace MacDougal’s Nursing Adventures: A FANY in France (1917) and Violetta Thurston’s Field Hospital and Flying Column: Being the Journal of an English Nursing Sister in Belgium and Russia (1915). But Edith Cavell would leave a different kind of legacy.


 Rather than leaving an account of her own experiences, Cavell would unwittingly leave her mark on British and American propaganda during World War I. She became the most famous British female Edith_Cavell_Crime_Des_Barbarescasualty of the war. The British government used her story to bolster military recruitment, while the US adopted Cavell to garner favorable sentiment toward the Allied effort–and to demonize the Germans.

Cavell-Propaganda-StampSoon after her death, news reports of questionable veracity emerged. Even the American Journal of Nursing printed a spurious account of Cavell’s execution, in which Cavell had refused to wear a blindfold, fainted in the face of the firing squad, and been shot point blank by a German commanding officer. Eyewitnesses later indicated that this version was false.

Cavell is one of many figures in the history of nursing who have left an indelible mark on the world. She not only made strides as a figure in modern nursing, but also set herself apart as a remarkable humanitarian.


Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part One)

We all know Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton are major figures in the history of nursing, but they were certainly not the only women in the history of nursing who made an important mark. During the Civil War, a number of important historical figures turned their attention to nursing. Today we’ll look at Louisa May Alcott, Annie Wittenmyer, and Dorothea Dix.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa-May-AlcottBest known for Little Women, Louisa May Alcott penned dozens of popular works and was an early supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Her family were also passionate abolitionists; one of her earliest childhood memories was of a “Contraband” slave hiding in her family’s home, which was part of the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War broke out, Alcott was eager to support the cause. In December 1862, at thirty years old, Alcott began nursing at Union Hospital in Georgetown. She fell ill with typhoid pneumonia after only six weeks and returned home. Though she survived the illness, the mercury-based drugs used to treat it had lasting side effects; Alcott would never be fully healthy again.


Hospital Sketches (1869)

Alcott published Hospital Sketches in 1863. She noted that “the Sketches never made much money, but showed me ‘my style,’ and taking the hint I went where glory awaited me.” Alcott credited Hospital Sketches with showing her that her writing would be successful if she drew from her own experiences. Five years later, in 1868, Little Women would prove extremely popular for exactly that reason. Though Alcott’s stint as a nurse didn’t last long, it planted the seeds of some of America’s most beloved literature.

Annie Wittenmyer

Annie-WittenmyerSarah “Annie” Turner Wittenmyer began her career campaigning for orphans in Iowa. But during the Civil War, Wittenmyer joined the Keokuk Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society and turned her attention to caring for wounded soldiers. As Wittenmyer visited different military hospitals, she observed the deplorable conditions–and wasn’t shy about reporting them. Her advocacy resulted in new local support for funding and reform. In 1862, Wittenmyer was named Sanitary Agent for Iowa State Sanitary Commission. She was the first woman to hold that post.


Under the Guns (1895)

In 1864, however, Wittenmyer resigned the post to develop a dietary system for hospitals. By this time the practice of offering specialized food for convalescents was widely practiced. But she observed that these special diets were often poorly prepared–the people preparing the food often had little experience in food preparation, and the proper ingredients were often in short supply. Wittenmyer devised a plan to address at least the first of these challenges: she came up with a system of special kitchens that were overseen by female superintendents. Wittenmyer got support from the United States Christian Commission and established these kitchens at multiple large hospitals. The program was so successful that it was instituted at approximately 100 hospitals by the end of the Civil War. Wittenmyer even published a cookbook as a guide for the women running these kitchens.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix first became involved with the mentally ill at a prison in Massachusetts. She was shocked at the horrible conditions and lack of care that prisoners who clearly had mental illnesses Dorothea-Dixreceived, and she immediately began campaigning to improve their situation. But her focus changed on April 19, 1861, when a Massachusetts regiment on the way to Baltimore was waylaid by secessionists. Dix immediately boarded a train to Baltimore, intending to volunteer as a nurse. But when she arrived in Baltimore, Dix discovered that provisional hospitals had already been established and were relatively well staffed. Thus, she continued on to Washington, DC, where she offered her services as a nurse for the War Department.


Sequel to Marion Wilder (1828)

Despite her lack of medical training, Dix was made Superintendent of United States Army Nurses only months later. She immediately turned her attention to acquiring supplies and training staff. Dix insisted that her nurses all be over age 30 and plain looking. She also required them to wear drab uniforms. Her stringency paid off; Dix not only established order, but she also raised the standards of care.

Dix consistently demonstrated a selfless dedication to her cause. She once went to visit Joseph Fielding, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Fielding noted Dix’s exhaustion and asked why Dix had not taken a carriage. Dix noted that she hadn’t the money to hire a carriage because she’d spent all her money on medical supplies, and she staunchly refused to use the carriage Fielding requisitioned for her. Dix served as superintendent through the end of the Civil War, and then went back to advocating for the mentally ill.

Check back soon for Part Two, where we’ll introduce more overlooked figures in the history of nursing!


The Rare Books of Boston

November 15, 2013 kicks off the 36th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair! The city has played a vital role in America’s history, and in the history of the book. Here’s a look at some items in our collection that tie in with Boston’s rich past.

Red Sox Memorabilia

Red-SoxFew sports fans are more loyal than Red Sox fans. The Boston team was founded in 1901 as one of the American League’s eight charter franchises. For seven seasons, the team actually had no official name. They were referred to simply as “Boston,” “Bostonians,” or “Boston Americans,” while newspapers gave them more creative nicknames like “the Beaneaters” or “Plymouth Rocks.” In 1908, team owner John I Taylor chose the name “Red Sox,” a nod to the red socks that would become symbols of the team. Chicago journalists had started using “sox” as a headline-friendly shorthand for “stockings” already, and Taylor liked the name. But the team initially didn’t even wear red socks, but dark blue ones! And a Cincinnati team was actually the first to call iRed-Sox-Deweytself the Red Stockings. The team were members of the pioneering National Association of Base Ball Players and hired their first fully professional team in 1869, but the club folded after the 1870 season.

Boston Red Sox memorabilia is part of America’s rich and exciting tradition of baseball. We’re pleased to offer Boston Official Programs and Score Cards from 1957 and 1958. Another interesting item is AG Dewey Company’s Genuine Dodge Davis Flannel sample book (1971). The company got its start in 1936 in Quechee, New Hampshire. Throughout the 1930′s AG Dewey Company made the uniforms for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and other teams.

Boston Training School for Nurses

The Boston Training School for Nurses was only the second of its kind in the country, preceded by the Bellevue school in New York. At the time, nursing was still not viewed as a vocation that required much training; women would often take up the career simply due to financial need, and in many cases nurses had no special qualifications to recommend them. In New York, this resulted in patients’ immense suffering at the hands of inept nurses. No such condition emerged in Boston, however; nurses there were considered some of the best in the nation. Thus the push to start a training school met with some resistance; why would good nurses need further training?

Eventually, however, nurses and doctors saw the potential advantages of such a program. The Boston Training School for Nurses was established in 1873. It was affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and eventually evolved into the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing. The organization published annual reports, which are quite enlightening regarding nursing history. This copy of the report from 1892, in very good condition, shows us how the organization and nursing have evolved in only a few decades.

Dinners for Dickens

Charles-Dickens-Boston-1842Charles Dickens made two visits to the United States, first in 1842 and again in 1867. Boston proved an important city during both tours. In 1842, Dickens arrived to find himself already quite the celebrity, and his presence was in great demand. The “Young Men of Boston” had already extended an invitation to Dickens before he’d even left England. The dinner in his honor, documented by Thomas Gill and William English of the Morning Post, was held on February 1, 1842. Dickens made an almost fatal move during the course of the evening: he introduced the concept of an international copyright law. Dickens failed to gain the support of fellow authors as he’d anticipated. Instead he sparked a battle with the American press, who accused Dickens of creating a “huge dissonance” by broaching the subject of international copyright at such an inappropriate occasion. Dickens would further disenchant his American audience when he published American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewitt, both of which painted America in a less than favorable light.

Charles-Dickens-Boston-1867But Dickens’ genius soon won over his American audience once again. Swayed by the promise of £10,000 from a group of Boston intellectuals, Dickens headed back to America in 1867. Prior to his departure, a public banquet was held in the author’s honor at London’s Freemason’s Hall, on November 2, 1867. A record of the meeting was made, which includes speeches by Dickens, Lytton, Trollope, and other luminaries. Dickens’ second visit to the US proved a dizzying tour, jam packed with readings and public appearances. During one of his early appearances, he noted that both he and America were much changed since his first visit and vowed to issue appendices to American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewitt to temper his critical tone towards the US.

News from a Moving Train

In May, 1870, the Boston Board of Trade journeyed over 3,000 miles to San Francisco to meet with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. During the trip, twelve issues of the Trans-Continental were published on a Gordon press located in the baggage car. The paper reported the normal business of the train and its passengers, along with other news. The first issue, for instance, reports that the Athletics of Philadelphia beat Harvard Base Ball Club 20-8. The newspaper’s office was located in the train’s second car. The train was also equipped with “two well-stocked libraries, replete with choice works of fiction, history, poetry, etc.” Each issue recorded a different locale on the masthead. The newspaper is generally regarded as the first newspaper to be printed on a moving train.

A Political Discourse on Abolition

Lydia-Childs_AbolitionBoston was a hotbed for abolitionism. One Bostonian’s abolitionist work, though denounced at the time of publication, is now recognized as a groundbreaking tour de force in American abolitionist literature. Lydia Maria Francis Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833 and immediately shocked even fellow abolitionists. Unlike her colleagues, Child eschewed religious or scriptural justifications for ending slavery. She also ignored traditional, emotional arguments about the cruelties of slavery. This was because Child had a larger and more ambitious objective; she sought to end discrimination against free African Americans. Such a stance was hardly popular, which Child had predicted in her preface, saying, “Though I expect ridicule and censure, I cannot fear them.” Child’s tone and style of argument at the time were seen as more masculine than feminine, which didn’t ameliorate reception of her work. Her book sales plummeted, and the Boston Athenaeum even rescinded her free library privileges.

But Child’s work would prove incredibly influential in the movement, making it a desirable addition to a collection on abolition, African American history, and the history of ideas. The book is relatively scarce in the trade; only three copies have appeared at auction in the last thirty years. The last copy, sold in 2000, was imperfect. This edition of An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans is bound in the original publisher’s cloth and has the errata slip tipped in. All in all, it’s a very good copy of a hard-to-find work.

Boston’s place in history intersects with the world of rare books in so many ways! What’s the most interesting item of Bostoniana in your collection?


Clara Barton: Heroine of Civil War Nursing and Record Keeping


“We have captured one fort—Gregg—and one charnel house—Wagner—and we have built one cemetery, Morris Island. The thousand little sandhills that in the pale moonlight are a thousand headstones, and the restless ocean waves that roll and breakup on the whitened beach sing an eternal requiem to all the toll-worn gallant dead who sleep beside.”

-Clara Barton, Morris Island

The Library of Congress commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with an incredible exhibition of about 200 artifacts from the period—many of which have never been seen before. Last week we were honored to attend the exhibit, and to sit in on a fascinating conversation between filmmaker Ric Burns and Harvard President Drew Gilpen Faust. The two recently collaborated on making a documentary from Dr. Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. 

Faust’s book focuses on the ways that the Civil War significantly shaped the way we grapple with death—both personally and pragmatically. At least 2% of the population died during the war, making it the most fatal of all the wars in American history. Several significant figures emerged in this struggle. For example, Edmund Burke Whitman, an abolitionist who’d come from Kansas, took it upon himself to collect information about missing soldiers and the locations of unmarked graves. A quartermaster during the war, Whitman would go on to become the Superintendent of National Cemeteries after the war ended. 

Barton’s Role during the Civil War

But Whitman wasn’t the only one to feel a higher duty to identify the lost and fallen. Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara Barton grew up to be one of the most distinguished nurses in the United States. Perhaps best known for founding the American Red Cross, Barton also played a pivotal role during the Civil War—not only as a nurse, but also as a record keeper.

Barton first came to Washington, DC in 1854, where she took a position at the US Patent Office. She worked there for three years, until her abolitionist views made her to controversial and she returned to New England. But 1861 saw her back in the capitol, and when the Civil War broke out Barton was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the Washington Infirmary.

After Barton’s father died, she left the city hospital to care for soldiers in the field. What she found here reflected the scene in battlefields all over the country. There was a dizzying shortage of medical supplies, and Barton purchased supplies with donations and her own money. (Congress would later reimburse her for these expenses.)

Barton also quickly discovered what would turn into one of the greatest challenges in the nation’s recovery: there were no processes for documenting the wounded, the dead, the buried; no protocol for notifying families if a loved one had been wounded or killed. Barton immediately set about collecting as much information as possible. She would post lists of the missing and solicit input directly from the soldiers.

The Nation Faces a New Challenge

It became readily apparent that the isolated efforts of individuals like Whitman and Barton would not be enough. In March 1865, Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her mission was to respond to inquiries from family members who were searching for loved ones. To do this, Barton sifted through all the prison rolls, hospital records, and casualty lists she could get her hands on. These documents weren’t always accurate.


Take, for instance, the case of John Shuman. He joined the Union Army in August 1862, but died of dysentery in August 1863. Shuman left behind an extensive correspondence with his family, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Civil War soldiers’ daily lives. Though the family name appears to be “Shuman” in the letters, the local census lists the family as “Shurman.” Furthermore the office responsible for removing John’s remains identified him as Shuman, but the grave marker and index at the cemetery list him as “Sherman.” The history of John’s infantry, published in 1895, calls him “John Shewman.”

Many soldiers in the war were not so lucky; they were not identified. Whitman and Barton again led the charge, independently insisting on the identification and marking of soldiers’ graves wherever they could be tracked down. Eventually it was thanks to their efforts that our national cemetery system was developed and implemented.

Barton would go on to distinguish herself as the founder of the American Red Cross and a true pioneer in the field of nursing. But her contributions during the Civil War were an equally significant accomplishment. What do you believe is Barton’s greatest achievement?