Sister Chrysostom Moynahan: AEF chief nurse buried with military honors.

On Veterans Day, it’s good to remember that veterans come from many different backgrounds. Such a veteran is Sister Chrysostom Moynahan (1863–1941), a member of the Daughters of Charity religious order that has a long history of caring for the sick and vulnerable. Its record includes distinguished service during the Civil War by American Daughters of Charity and during World War I by some 15,000 French Daughters of Charity and the only U.S. nuns to work in the European theater.

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The Daughters of Charity nurses of Base Hospital No. 102. Sister Chrysostom Moynahan is in the front row, center. El Paso Herald 24 Aug. 1918

Born in Ireland as Hannah Moynahan, Sister Chrysostom immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1879, and they resided in Massachusetts. According to the History of American Red Cross Nursing, Sister Chrysostom, after graduating from the seminary of the Daughters of Charity in 1889, was sent to Carney Hospital in Boston. Sister Chrysostom then entered the Daughters of Charity’s school for nurses, graduating in 1894. During the Spanish American War, she cared for the Spanish who were injured after the Maria Theresa attempted to run a U.S. blockade and was fired upon. She had subsequent assignments at Fort Thomas (KY), in Evansville (IN), and in Birmingham (AL). In Birmingham, she served as administrator of St. Vincent’s Hospital and founded the hospital’s school of nursing—the first nursing school in Alabama. In 1916, Sister Chrysostom became the first registered nurse licensed in Alabama. In 1918, she was appointed chief nurse of Base Hospital 102 (aka the “Loyola Unit” or the “New Orleans Unit” because the personnel mainly was from Loyola University in New Orleans) and set off for Italy on the Umbria from Baltimore in August. Along the way, the Umbria rescued survivors of the torpedoed oil tanker Jennings, who received medical attention from the hospital staff. Said Sister Chrysostom in the El Paso Herald prior to their departure:

We are all registered nurses and are anxious to go across and get to work. . . .We will have charge of the operating rooms and hope to do our full duty to bring the American boys back to health and happiness. . . .The sisterhood feels keenly the desire to be of the utmost service in caring for the soldiers of Italy or any of the other Allies of America. War makes its demand upon the woman power of America as well as upon the man power, and all who can do so, no matter what the sacrifice, should serve the interest of America’s part in the war.

The Herald account noted that the nuns were unaccustomed to having their photograph taken and only consented so “they might serve as an example for others to follow.” The Daughters of Charity nurses were permitted to wear the garb of their order but also wore a device and a cap while on duty to indicate that they were members of the Army Nurse Corps (see The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War 297). From September 1918 to the end of March 1919, Base Hospital No. 102 in Vicenza cared for a total of 3,000 patients, which included nearly 400 Americans. Twenty-eight deaths occurred. The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives blog notes that the hospital was located 15 miles from the Italian front, and its cases included burns from mustard gas, pneumonia, malaria, and influenza. Sister Florence Grace Means, one of Sister Chrysostom’s colleagues, provided some harrowing glimpses into their environment in her diary, describing stoves that “blow up at regular intervals” and 2000 lying wounded and dying at a field hospital that had only 10 nurses in attendance. A 21 June 1919 Literary Digest account of the unit’s work at the front provided equally sobering details on air raids, lack of heat, and patient conditions, and stated:

The entire detachment, including the nurses and officers, was also mentioned in the order of the day issued to the Sixth Army on December 12, and awarded the Italian service ribbon with the Monte Grappa medal commemorating that memorable campaign… (76)

Sister Chrysostom returned to the United States in April 1919, going on to administer hospitals in St. Louis, St. Joe (MO), and Mobile. When she died in 1941, she was accorded a funeral with full military honors and was buried in Mobile’s Catholic Cemetery. Sister Chrysostom was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1982.

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Illustration from a 21 Apr. 1919 South Bend News Times article, including staff of Base Hospital 102 returning on the British liner Canopic and Sister Chrysostom

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Elizabeth Claghorn Potter: Refugee and canteen worker, Intelligence Service secretary.

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Elizabeth Claghorn Potter, from her 1918 passport application

From April 1917 to March 1919, Elizabeth Claghorn Potter (1894–1985) worked as a staffer in Paris for Duryea War Relief, which assisted refugees; as secretary to Lieutenant Colonel Cabot Ward, chief of the U.S. Intelligence Service; and as a Red Cross canteen worker in St. Pierre-des-Corps. The daughter of Harvard librarian Alfred Claghorn Potter and cousin of author Conrad Aiken, Potter graduated from the Winsor School in Boston.

The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School 1914–1919 reprints part of a letter on her canteening experiences. In one moving passage she writes:

I have been called out to an American hospital train to sign for the effects of a boy of nineteen who died from gassing while I was in the interpreter’s office calling for an ambulance for him, and seen the pitiful blanketed figure put out on the platform in the warm sunlight . . . . Instead of retiring to cry, one dashes back to the canteen, puts on another record, pours more coffee, swallows one’s tears, smiles the eternal canteen smile, and hands out the snappy back talk over the counter. (77)

In May 1921, Potter married Stedman Buttrick Hoar (1893–1961), a Harvard graduate and World War I veteran who turned to canning grapefruit and orange juices in California.

Aftermath: Health of U.S. Women in WWI.

“Super-sensitive people should not come here.”

—Margaret Hall, on the suicides of her colleagues Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell after their service in France (see Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country)

Although there has been recent coverage about the health care needs of U.S. female service members, it is not a new matter. In 1923, the American Legion called attention to disabled American women who had served in World War I. In 1931, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA), the first congresswoman elected from New England who had served in France and at Walter Reed, asked President Hoover to open homes and hospitals specifically for female veterans.

Accounts of U.S. women who served in the war and had their lives cut short tend to be deeply sad, not least because often little of their story is known. The following are some examples.

  • Yeoman (F) Genevieve Cox Petrone was murdered by her husband on the Southern Pacific ferry Santa Clara in October 1917. The husband’s suicide note included in the newspaper account suggests that Petrone intended to leave him after a history of marital discord. Another newspaper article stated that they were separated.
  • Canteen workers Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell jumped from the ship taking them to the United States in January 1919 after suffering under bombardment in France (discussed in my book In Their Own Words).
  • Azeele Packwood, a member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps (affiliated with the Red Cross), was found dead from chloroform asphyxiation at the Palisades in January 1919. According to newspaper accounts, she was despondent after the October 1918 death in France of her close friend (and rumored boyfriend) Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, son of millionaire banker Harris C. Fahnestock. Packwood, the daughter of businessman and Civil War/Spanish-American War veteran George H. Packwood of Tampa, was not mentioned in Fahnestock’s will. Her nephew, Ernest Packwood MacBryde, asserted that she was murdered. Azeele Street in Tampa is named after her. (The New-York Tribune has side-by-side accounts of the Packwood and Cornwell deaths).
  • Former Yeoman (F) Grace Coombs, 28, committed suicide in her lodgings in Washington, DC, in April 1919. Relatives attributed it to ill health. Her brother, Guy Coombs, was an actor in silent films.
  • Yeoman (F) Flossie May Rosell, who graduated in 1917 from Colorado State Normal School (the precursor to University of Northern Colorado) and enlisted in the Navy in September 1918, drowned at Great Falls, VA, in September 1920. Her body was discovered in Maryland.  The coroner deemed it an accident (without hearing testimony from witnesses who had details about Rosell’s despondency due to erratic employment, which probably influenced the earlier accounts listing the death as suicide).
  • Dr. Caroline Purnell’s 1923 obituary attributes her death to overwork during the war. Purnell received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and honorary French citizenship for her service with the American Women’s Hospitals.
  • The 1925 death of war composer and former senior chief yeoman (F) Daisy May Erd is attributed in her death certificate to the tuberculosis she contracted during her military service.
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Members of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps, September 1918. Azeele Packwood is in the middle row, far right. National Archives.

Marion Gregory, translator/entertainer; Alice Gregory, surgeon.

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Marion Gregory, from her 1917 passport application

During World War I, Fannie Marion Gregory (1874–1923) served as a YMCA entertainer/canteen worker and a translator with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals (sponsored by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Assn) that counted her sister, Dr. Alice Gregory (1876–1953), as a key staffer before Alice resigned to serve in the French Army medical corps. The Gregory sisters had a few notables in their family tree: their paternal grandfather was Dudley S. Gregory, the first mayor of Jersey City, NJ, and a NJ congressman; and their maternal grandfather was J. Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of modern gynecology” and recently the subject of statue controversy.

Marion recounted her experiences in Memories of Service in France (1918). She left the United States on the Espagne on 3 Nov. 1917 and remained in France for seven months. She stayed at first with her widowed aunt, Eliza Sims Pratt, who had a house in Paris. She wrote:

One had to try to get used to seeing maimed men everywhere. At first it was heartrending for the newcomer, but it was beautiful to see the care and devotion shown the returned mutiles by everyone. (9)

She had firsthand experience with the large German gun called Big Bertha and air raids:

The night raids were horrible. No words can convey the sickening sensation of hearing the explosion of a bomb. The firing of the defense is nerve-racking, but when the horrible bomb comes one’s heart is cold at the thought of what it means. (11)

Marion next went to Labouheyre—a village near Bordeaux—with American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff to care for civilians and provide medical assistance to nearby US Army engineers. She worked with refugee families before she moved to YMCA service as a singer and canteen worker (noting that she was unable to cope with the climate of the hospital’s locale).

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Dr. Alice Gregory in WWI uniform. National Archives

Her sister Alice graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1902 and was on staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with fellow Cornell Medical College alums Caroline Sandford Finley and Anna von Sholly. Her WWI service began in early 1915, when she was part of the medical team for approximately five months at a French military hospital headed by Dr. Percy Turnure and located in Chateau de Passy, about 60 miles southeast of Paris. In 1917, Alice set off for France with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff (including Finley and von Sholly). Her matter-of-fact, often wry account “Work at a French Army Dressing Station” (Women’s Medical Journal, Jan. 1920) describes day-to-day life close to the front as a first lieutenant in the French Army medical corps. Stated Alice, “we averaged 1000 wounded every 24 hours” (3). Her 21 Apr. 1953 obituary in the New York Times noted that at this station, “it was not unusual for her to perform forty-two operations in eight hours,” and her account indicates that these procedures were not minor—”infected compound fractures, chest wounds, cranial injuries, and amputations galore” (1). Alice received the Croix de Guerre for her service.

Marion and Alice are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Dr. Alice Gregory, left, fences. From Around the World with a Camera (1917)

“After I come home, of course I couldn’t nurse anymore”: Jennie Cuthbert Brouillard.

Born in Kansas, Jennie Cuthbert Brouillard (1886–1985) earned her nursing credentials from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, and served as a nurse during World War I at Base Hospital No. 46. Also known as the “Oregon unit,” the hospital specialized in neurosurgical cases at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse in France. From 23 July 1918 to 19 January 1919, the hospital admitted 8366 patients.

According to a 1976 interview with Brouillard by the Latah County [ID] Historical Society, Brouillard worked as a nurse for about three years—including in Coos Bay, OR—before her World War I service. She joined the army in 1917 and first served as a nurse in a shipyard. She was assigned to the hospital at North Carolina’s Camp Greene for three months, then was sent to New York. On 4 July 1918, Brouillard headed for Liverpool on the Aquitania (mentioning in a letter that she worked one night in the ship’s hospital and in an interview that some of the men had to be knocked out to get them on the ship; many had never been away from home before). She arrived in France on 14 July. Her experiences are featured in a 31 Aug 1918 letter to Sergeant Chester F. Leighton of Camp Greene, in the 1976 interview (which starts at about minute 16 after the interview with Brouillard’s sister), and in a 2015 Latah Eagle article based on the oral history.
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Documentary on US female physicians in World War I.

The American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) is producing a short documentary on its heroic members who served in World War I and is in need of funding support for the film. The AMWA plans to show the film at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City in September. For further information, visit the AMWA Web page about the documentary.

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Surgeon Caroline Sandford Finley operates on a fracture.

Marian Baldwin, canteen worker.

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Marian Baldwin,  from her 1917 passport application

“…[T]heir souls shine through their eyes.”
—WWI canteen worker Marian Baldwin on U.S. servicemen she encountered in France (Canteening Overseas 78)

Daughter of Elbert Francis Baldwin (1857–1927), editor of the Outlook (read William H. Rowe Jr.’s ode to Baldwin), and resident of Lakewood, NJ, Marian Baldwin (1895–1972) sailed for France in June 1917 on La Touraine, headed for canteen service in Paris with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, she refers to “Frank Sayre” on the ship with her; this may be Francis Bowes Sayre, son-in-law of President Wilson, who was en route to France to serve with the YMCA.

Once in Paris, she helped out at a new YMCA canteen operated by Adele Verley of Providence, RI,  and Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. A graduate of Miss Porter’s School, Baldwin could speak French and German (although she was not very confident in her French-speaking ability and described herself as “a lady with moods … who has been spoiled all her life” [88]). She provided reactions from the crew of the Alcedo, who previously had rescued the men of the Finland and the Antilles before a German U-boat torpedoed their ship.

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Duluth News-Tribune on WWI nurse May MacGregor.

In “Near the Front Lines,” the Duluth News-Tribune highlights the service of Bemidji resident May Olive MacGregor (1889–1980), a nurse at Mobile Hospital No. 1 in France (which worked near Chateau Thierry and in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne areas). In an often harrowing account, nurse Ida M. Anderson stated that during the hospital’s period of active service, it conducted more than 6000 major operations and had 413 deaths.

Further reading:
Nurse Cared for Wounded as Airplanes Dropped Bombs.” Bemidji Daily Pioneer 16 Apr. 1919.

Citations Won by Bemidji Nurse on France Battlefields.” Bemidji Daily Pioneer 17 Apr. 1919.

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Mobile Hospital No. 1, Fromereville, France. Nat Lib of Medicine.

New book features WWI nurse Madelon Battle Hancock.

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Madelon Battle Hancock. Bisbee [AZ] Daily Rev., 27 Dec. 1919

North Carolina and the Great War is a new book by Jessica Bandel published by University of North Carolina Press, which draws on the collections of the North Carolina Museum of History and other institutions. It includes the experiences of Asheville-born Madelon Battle Hancock (1882–1930), who earned her nursing credentials from New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, served with the British Red Cross in Belgium, and received numerous medals. Her father was Samuel Westray Battle, a Navy surgeon and physician to the Vanderbilt family. Wrote Hancock in September 1918:

I am on Night Duty again and alone and we get 39 and 49 in a night all to be washed and their dressings done besides treatment for most of them and by morning I am like a ressurected [sic] corpse, I really never was so tired in my life[.]

Further resources:

Letters from Madelon Battle Hancock to her family
Medals of Madelon Battle Hancock