Elizabeth H. Ashe, nurse.


Elizabeth Ashe. Nat Library of Medicine

“I am wondering and wondering if this is to be a thirty years’ war.”—Elizabeth H. Ashe, Intimate Letters 41

Elizabeth Haywood Ashe (1869–1954) was a granddaughter of North Carolina governor Samuel Ashe (who gave his surname to Asheville, NC) and a niece of Civil War admiral David Farragut. In 1902, she earned her nursing credentials from the School of Nursing at Presbyterian Hospital in New York. She worked with those affected by the 1906 earthquake and cofounded the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, the first settlement house in San Francisco. In 1917, she was slated to join the France-bound Base Hospital No. 30 unit of the University of California when Dr. William Palmer Lucas, who later established the UC Department of Pediatrics, asked that she lead the nursing staff of a Children’s Bureau unit of the Red Cross. Focusing on medical care of French children (who were experiencing a high mortality rate), the unit traveled to France in summer 1917. Ashe wrote letters describing her experiences, later collected in Intimate Letters from France during America’s First Year of War (1918). Although in administration, she did more than sit behind a desk; for example, she visited the front, was located at one time in a town that was regularly bombed, and taught children how to play leapfrog. She wrote in August 1918:

. . . I have an erratic way of suddenly leaving my bureau at the call of the wounded and appearing unexpectedly at the hospital, at the critical moment, where I am greeted with open arms. Then I come back so dead tired at the end of a week or so that no one has the heart to scold me. But to sit in that office dictating letters, knowing that those poor boys are actually suffering for the most rudimentary care, is beyond my powers of endurance. . . . .One of the doctors has just come in to tell me that a trainload of  wounded came in last night which means that 350 men have been brought to the hospital and are lying in all stages of discomfort over the floors, lawns, corridors and in fact wherever they can find floor space for them as they have to be undressed, fed and many things done for them before they find rest. They usually arrive on the stretchers without pillows, their heads resting on the iron cross bars. The suffering these poor fellows go through absolutely without a complain[t] is heroic beyond words. I can’t get used to it…( 116).

Ashe returned to the United States in July 1919, resuming her work at the Hill Convalescent Home for Children in Marin County, CA. In 1922, Ashe announced the opening of a rest home on the property for professional women.


Elizabeth Ashe, right, visits a Red Cross nursing home outside of Paris, June 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division