Rosanna D. Thorndike, worker with blind servicemen in France.

Thorndike1917

Rosanna D. Thorndike, from her 1917 passport application

Boston-born Rosanna Duncan Thorndike (1898–1979) was the daughter of broker Albert Thorndike, who was treasurer and a trustee of Perkins School for the Blind, the first US school for the blind. At age 15, she earned a prize in a writing contest of St. Nicholas magazine alongside Bennett Cerf and Stephen Vincent Benét. At Perkins, she learned handcrafts, which was preparation for her World War I work.

In September 1917, she sailed for France, where she first served as a YMCA worker in Eleanor Butler Roosevelt‘s Hotel Richmond for US officers (a cousin of Thorndike’s father was Paul Thorndike, who was acquainted with the Roosevelt family). Thorndike also worked as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross; as a teacher of crafts and English at the Phare de France, a training school for blind French service members involving Winifred Holt (daughter of publisher Henry Holt and founder of the New York Association for the Blind, aka Lighthouse Guild); and as a worker with US blind soldiers at Base Hospital 8 in Savenay. Thorndike wrote of her experiences in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919:

The first blind soldiers to return to America reached home in a pretty disconsolate condition. They had not been told anything of all there is left in life even after sight has been taken away, and it meant that they were utterly discouraged and disheartened, and that they had slipped so far into both mental and physical darkness, that it was very difficult to rouse them to any hope for their futures or any interest in things in the world about them. . . . .

[I]t was decided that . . . it would be eminently worth while to take a few weeks to help these men to learn a little of what others may teach them of how to be blind. . . . . Every day each one who was in condition to study learned a little Braille, a bit of typewriting, worked on a basket, modelled a few minutes in clay—made a little progress in something; and we tried to keep up their interest so they would want always to learn more. Then there were walks in the afternoons . . . . there were sometimes feasts, and always games and reading aloud. . . . .

They were full, busy, even happy days in a way, in spite of the suffering, the discouragement, the homesickness, the occasional lack of courage that just had to enter in. They were days I shall never forget . . . (93–94)

She returned to the United States in March 1919. In that year, she was a member of the Department of Social and Physical Education for the Red Cross Institute for the Blind (known as Evergreen) in Baltimore. According to the 23 Nov. 1922 Boston Post, she was one of 100 members of the Overseas Women’s Service League to participate in a parade honoring the visiting former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. From 1923 to 1940, she was secretary to Hans Zinsser of Harvard’s medical school. In the May 1927 issue of Carry On, she wrote movingly of the plight of blind veterans, seeking to raise funds for an orchestra composed of these men:

I knew these boys in France, and I’ve known them since. I know the kind of things they are up against—no real home sometimes, often no occupation, no understanding from other people. I know their courage and their grit. . . . . Think of the plans these boys had for their lives; think of the suffering they’ve been through mental and physical; imagine the eternal darkness they can never get away from; or the tiny blurr of light that never increases and which may suddenly fade away entirely. (40)

She became a trustee of the Perkins School for the Blind. During World War II, Thorndike returned to relief work in France via the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and she was interned in Germany for over a year, as the AFSC documents (including a report coauthored by Thorndike about the AFSC’s wartime work in France).

Thorndike went on to work for the US embassy in Paris. In September 1950, she married Frederick Jefferson Leviseur, a Harvard graduate who had been a first lieutenant in the AEF’s Quartermaster Corps in World War I and worked in civil affairs in France during World War II.

Further reading:

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