“The very edge of hell”: Ada Mabel Whyte, nurse.

Ada Mabel Whyte, from her 1918 passport application

Born in Oneonta, NY, Ada Mabel Whyte (1877–1963) trained as a nurse in New York hospitals, serving as head nurse and later matron of Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg, MA. In March 1918, she sailed for France to serve as a Red Cross nurse. A letter published in the December 1918 Public Health Nurse Quarterly to Ella Phillips Crandall, executive secretary of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, provides a glimpse of some of her experiences.

I have been in France nearly seven months . . .

My first two months were spent with the Children’s Bureau, where I helped teach some young French women something about the care of the child or infant . . . .

I was then sent to an American Red Cross hospital to help care for American boys. When you are washing blood stains from the face of an American boy and he looks up and says, “You’re the first American woman I’ve spoken to in six months,” nothing else in the world matters, but just that you are an American woman. After a month with these chaps I had only one ambition, to make them clean and rest their tired backs.

Since the latter part of July I have been in the Service Santé. An American nurse or nurses, with an aid or aids who speak French are sent to French hospitals where there are American soldiers.

My first assignment took me to the very edge of hell. Up near the front an old Chateau had been converted into a hospital. When we arrived there was a constant line of ambulances bringing in French, American and Boche wounded. The building and the yards were crowded. There was our khaki everywhere, our khaki stained with blood.

Everywhere you turned was misery and suffering, and yet you were constantly seeing little acts of consideration which clutched your very heart.

I saw a wounded soldier with his good arm brushing flies from the face of a comrade who lay dying on the stretcher beside him. One plucky little chap with a bad compound fracture of the fore leg said, “Nurse, take these other fellows before you do me. They’re hurt a lot worse.”

Those American doctors, I don’t know their names, but I shall never forget them. Their attitude was “don’t let the boys suffer more than is really necessary.” Some of these nurses had been going thirty-six hours with apparently no thought of stopping. The general regret has been that one could only do one person’s work. We were here only two days, as all the patients were evacuated. We then spent three days in an American field hospital as near to the front as our government permits women to go. This was a very interesting experience. This hospital was equipped with everything except nurses, even patients. I never saw such an appreciative group of surgeons. They all declared it was useless to try to do anything without nurses. “This is Heaven,” they said, the first day they had nurses in the operating room.

Later I spent several days in a French military hospital and for nearly three months I have been in a French mixte [sic] hospital which is under the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul and which receives both civil and miltary patients. We have watched our group of Americans dwindle from thirty-two to six patients. We are hoping they may all be sent to an American hospital very soon, as we are needed elsewhere. . . .

What wonderful news we are receiving, the end is really in sight at last. (337–38)

Whyte later served as a member of New York’s State Tuberculosis Committee and field nurse at the Florida Tuberculosis Sanitorium.

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