Born in Leipzig, Germany, Mary Katharine Taylor (1887–1981) was the daughter of Joseph Richard Taylor, a professor of Greek at Boston University. She graduated from the university with an AB in 1910, earned a BS in social work from Simmons College in 1918, and received an MA in education from Columbia University in 1934. In 1918–19, she was a canteen worker and Red Cross searcher at Base Hospital No. 31 in Contrexeville, France, and Evacuation Hospital No. 9 in Coblenz, Germany. In the December 1920 issue of the Boston University publication Bostonia, she described her duties:
“Searching” just means trying to find out from each man the exact facts concerning the killed or missing in his company. The picture that comes to mind is very clear—serious, interested faces bending over a map while some one points to the spot where the shell burst. . . “Oh, yes, I saw it happen—he was my buddy, and we were always together.” And the story is told with awful simplicity by a boy into whose eyes creeps the look that one sees only in the eyes of those who have seen unforgettable things.
“Answering hospital inquiries” was another duty the thought of which brings back the registrar’s office at night—blinds tightly closed, for fear of air raids, and noisy typewriters pounding out the new lists of wounded. I search through thousands of cards in the files, looking to see if any of the hundreds of names on the daily list sent out by the Red Cross are among the hospital records. These names all represent anguished appeals to the Red Cross for news of men who have been reported wounded or killed. (“The American Red Cross” 108–09)
Taylor provides illuminating excerpts about her job from her “four worn notebooks full of strange little scribbles” (108):
“Bed 31, Ward E-2, wants razor blades.”
“New man in end bed, surgical 3, wants letter written. Urgent.”
“Ask Red Cross Captain whether to give writing-paper to wounded Germans.”
“Nurse in pneumonia ward wants Blackjack gum.”
“Tell Major Black New Orleans Red Cross has just cabled that his wife is dead.”
“Y. M. C. A. man in officers’ ward wants long distance call sent to Colombey to find out whether doctor at Field Hospital knows where his trousers are.”
“John McCarthy’s last words: ‘Tell mother the weather is fine, and I will be home soon.'”
Taylor’s 29 Oct. 1918 letter to the mother of Edward Grant Holt, who died after being gassed, can be found on Cow Hampshire, a New Hampshire history blog. She wrote:
My dear Mrs. Holt . . . You have undoubtedly received by this time the sad news of your son’s death . . . He was badly gassed and immediately developed broncho-pneumonia . . . he was very patient and was anxious not to give trouble to anyone. . . he spoke once of wanting to see his brother, but talked very little and was unconscious at the end . . . you may be sure that every possible effort was made to save your son’s life.
After returning to the United States in summer 1919, Taylor served as associate field director of medical social work at the Army Hospital of Camp Devens (MA). The Red Cross sent her to France and Britain in 1921. She later headed the social service department at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, served as director of the social service department of the Washington University Clinics of St. Louis, and was active in the journal Medical Social Work.