Watercolor picture showing Red Cross nurses assisting a child while other people march with French flag and swords.

“Self-Sacrificing Service”: The Life and Death of a Red Cross Nurse in Wartime France

Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge, known as “Curry,” was one of the first American nurses to go to Europe during World War I. Her service overseas — and her untimely death — demonstrate the difficulties and dangers of wartime nursing, even as Curry exemplified popular prescriptions for women’s self-sacrificing service to others.

Background

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, on September 1, 1875, Curry was the youngest of five living children born to Issa Desha Breckinridge and William C. P. Breckinridge. Like several other women in the Breckinridge kinship network, Curry sought a socially acceptable way to carry on the family’s long tradition of civic engagement. For Curry, the path to public service was nursing, an emerging feminized profession that justified women’s entry into the public sphere in terms of female self-sacrifice.1

According to her brother Desha, Curry aspired to become a nurse when she was “but little more than a child.”2 Due to family opposition, however, she initially worked instead as a kindergarten teacher. Eventually, after both parents’ deaths, she pursued nursing training in Chicago, graduating from the Presbyterian Hospital’s Training School for Nurses in 1908 and subsequently working as a public health nurse in Illinois and Michigan.3

Wartime Nursing

Curry sailed for France as soon as World War I began. By June 1915, she was working at a base hospital near the front lines with a Chicago nursing unit associated with the British Expeditionary Forces.4 The unit comprised two physicians and seventy-five nurses who sailed from New York and spent ten days in London before arriving at a base hospital at an undisclosed location. Military medics provided wounded soldiers first aid on site before transferring them to an evacuation hospital. Because it took a day or two to transport patients to the base hospital, physicians and nurses operated on some soldiers in tents at the evacuation location. Only after twenty-four to forty-eight hours did wounded patients arrive — filthy, exhausted, and suffering from exposure and infection — at the base hospital where Curry worked. 5

Old black-and-white photo of a standing young woman in a wide-brimmed hat and a large coat that conceals her hands.
Curry Breckinridge in a Red Cross uniform, ca. 1917-1918. (US Library of Congress)

Like other nurses who served in wartime Europe, Curry cared for terribly wounded men under extremely difficult circumstances. A typical workday in a French military hospital lasted fourteen hours and included boiling instruments, taking temperatures, bathing patients, dressing wounds, feeding patients, administering injections, and cleaning the wards. At many hospitals — likely including the one “just back of the firing line” where Curry first served — makeshift accommodations, inadequate plumbing, and lack of basic medical supplies further exacerbated nurses’ difficulties.6

Proximity to the front lines also exposed nurses to air raids, which one nurse called “a constant and nerve-wracking peril.”7 The long, cold winters in France — a frequent subject in nurses’ accounts — only added to the strain. Nurses’ duties were made even more onerous when battles resulted in a massive influx of new patients. Soldiers’ injuries — shattered bones, missing limbs, and infected wounds — were shocking even to the most experienced nurses. Although Curry’s letters home were not preserved — even if they had been, the social pressure to accentuate the positive and the presence of military censors might have prevented her from sharing the details of her experience — her brother Desha’s responses to them suggest both that Curry attempted to adhere to the expectation of constant cheer and that she often found the work difficult.8

In late November 1916, for example, after Curry had transferred to the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly, Desha told his sister that he was “delighted” to get two letters from her. “They sounded so fine, as if you were enjoying life, though they tell also between the lines something of the hardships through which you are going.”9

Other nurses’ accounts of nursing in Neuilly give a sense of what “hardships” Curry may have encountered. One nurse described the conditions in the American Hospital following a battle:

Our hospitals weren’t prepared for the large number of wounded that suddenly and unexpectedly arrived, it was terrible. The hospital at Neuilly almost over night increased from 600 to 1,500 beds. The nurses were routed out of their beds at eleven p.m., one night, and wounded from the operating room brought right in. You can’t imagine anything like it. … There was a continuous stream of stretchers going and coming.10

Like other nurses, Curry struggled with both the physical and the emotional demands of nursing in a war zone. As her sister Sophonisba summarized: “She was never warm that winter, the work was very exhausting, and her sympathies were aroused beyond all possibility of expression.”11 Despite the challenging circumstances, Curry won plaudits for her effectiveness and commitment. According to a journalist who met Curry while she was at the American Hospital, “her ability as a nurse and her unfailing devotion … have made her the idol of hundreds of wounded soldiers.”12

Ambulance that brought the first patient to Dartford hospital. Dartford was set up outside London to treat American wounded. (War Department/Red Cross/Wikimedia Commons)

Curry evidently adhered to popular prescriptions for female self-sacrifice and cheerfulness under adversity. According to a news clipping (probably from the Lexington Herald, edited by her brother Desha) in her family’s papers, even after being “near the firing line for the past six months,” she wrote “most enthusiastically of the splendid spirit shown under the hardships, misfortunes, and losses by the people of Paris.” The story continued:

While the censor does not permit, nor she attempt to give details, her letters are glowing with the spirit of patriotism and high resolve which has been evinced by the French nation. She is delighted with the American Hospital, and it may be possible that she will be there for some months.13

Curry remained at the American Hospital until the U.S. entered the war in the spring of 1917, when she transferred to the Red Cross hospital in Paris to join the expanding ranks of American Red Cross nurses overseas. As an official Red Cross nurse, Curry served in a facial surgery ward for most of 1917.14

Red Cross nurses in France routinely worked around the clock. Julia Stimson, Chief Nurse of the American Red Cross in France, frequently commented on both the physical difficulties and the “great mental stress” produced by the situations she encountered in wartime France.15 After a week of “great busyness” at field hospitals near the front, her nurses were “absolutely tired out”:

One doctor and one nurse work at each table and you can imagine what surgical work the nurse has to do, no mere handling of instruments and sponges, but sewing and tying up and putting in drains while the doctor takes the next piece of shell out of another place. Then after fourteen hours of this, with freezing feet, to a meal of tea and bread and jam, and off to rest if you can in a wet bell tent in a damp bed without sheets, after a wash with a cupful of water. … It is a marvel to me that human beings can stand it all.16

Even with all these physical and mental challenges, in Paris, as in Neuilly, Curry continued to win her patients’ admiration and respect. One admirer painted a watercolor showing uniformed Red Cross nurses assisting an injured child while men and boys rushed away bearing swords and flags. The artist dedicated the painting to Curry with thanks for “her goodness and the devoted care that she gave to the unfortunate wounded.”17

Death

Eventually, however, Curry’s “devoted care” destroyed her health. In the fall of 1917, an unspecified but severe ailment prompted her to return to the United States unexpectedly.18 After a prolonged illness, Curry died on June 23, 1918 at the age of forty-two. Committed to service to soldiers to the end, shortly before her death, she asked that instead of sending flowers, family and friends create a fund in her name to be used “for the benefit of the soldiers in France.”19

Accounts of Curry’s death variously attributed her death to pneumonia, influenza, or a heart condition, but all agreed that her death was “directly attributable to her exertions during twenty-seven months of service in the hospitals of France.”20 As her brother Desha explained: “The months and years when she had been hungry and cold, when she had overtaxed her strength, had taken so much of her very life force she had not the strength to throw off the infection.”21

Conclusion

Curry Breckinridge’s experiences highlight several themes in women’s wartime nursing. Like other nurses who served in wartime Europe, she cared for horribly wounded men under severely trying circumstances. Nonetheless, she won her patients’ admiration and respect by providing quality medical care. Curry also adhered to popular gendered prescriptions of female cheerfulness under adversity, writing upbeat accounts of her wartime service and urging other women to follow her example and dedicate themselves to wartime nursing. Finally, Curry embodied the contemporary ideal of feminine self-sacrifice by literally giving her life to serve others. Curry’s story reveals that even as World War I offered women new professional opportunities as nurses, it also posed new threats to their personal welfare — and even their lives.

Curry’s brief life illuminates the “dilemmas of self-sacrifice” confronting professional nurses in the Progressive Era. By exhibiting “a woman’s self-sacrificing service to others,” Curry Breckinridge exemplified contemporary expectations of both ideal femininity and professional nursing.22 Because the ideal of female self-sacrifice continues to be a central component of the gendered profession of nursing, her story still resonates today.

Further Reading

Melanie Beals Goan, “Establishing Their Place in the Dynasty: Sophonisba and Mary Breckinridge’s Paths to Public Service,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 101, nos. 1 and 2 (2003): 45-73.

Melanie Beals Goan, Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Melba Porter Hay, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

Anya Jabour, “Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948): Homegrown Heroine,” in Melissa A. McEuen and Thomas H. Appleton, Jr., eds., Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 140-167.

Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

Ruth Johnsen, The History of the School of Nursing of Presbyterian Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, 1903-1956 (Chicago: Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association, 1959).

Barbara Melosh, “The Physician’s Hand”: Work Culture and Conflict in American Nursing (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

James C. Klotter, The Breckinridges of Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1986).

Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Robyn Muncy, “Gender and Professionalization in the Origins of the U.S. Welfare State: The Careers of Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, 1890-1935,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 1990):, 290-315.

Notes

  1. Susan M. Reverby, Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Return to text.
  2. Desha Breckinridge, “Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge,” [obituary], Lexington Herald, June 25, 1918, p. 4; Kindergarten Magazine, Vol. XI (September 1898-June 1899), 617 (quotation); Listing for “Miss Curry O Breckinridge” [sic], Lexington, Kentucky, City Directory, 1898, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Ancestry.com. Return to text.
  3. Initially, Curry took a position with the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane. After a year there, she took a brief hiatus to work with the Red Cross’s response to catastrophic flooding in the Ohio Valley in 1913. But Curry primarily dedicated herself to working with tuberculosis patients first in Chicago and then in Michigan. American Journal of Nursing 14 (1914): 674; “Obituary Notice,” Public Health Nurse Quarterly 10 (1918): 352-353; and “Many Marooned in Lexington Because of Disabled Roads,” Lexington Herald, March 30, 1913, p. 1; Desha Breckinridge, “Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge,” [obituary], Lexington Herald, June 25, 1918, p. 4. Return to text.
  4. “Curry Desha Breckinridge,” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 61 (1918): 179-180; and Desha Breckinridge, “Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge,” [obituary], Lexington Herald, June 25, 1918, p. 4.; Passport Application for Curry Arsha [sic] Breckinridge, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Ancestry.com; and Listing for Curry D. Breckenridge [sic], UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, Ancestry.com. Return to text.
  5. Miss Adams, “Address from a Red Cross Nurse,” Proceedings of the 13th Annual Meeting of the Illinois Association of Graduate Nurses, Peoria, Illinois, November 9,1917, reprinted in Karen J. Egenes and Wendy Kent Burgess, Faithfully Yours: A History of Nursing in Illinois (Chicago: Illinois Nurses’ Association, 2001), 54-57. Return to text.
  6. Desha Breckinridge, “Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge,” [obituary], Lexington Herald, June 25, 1918, p. 4. Return to text.
  7. Katherine Burger Johnson, “Called to Serve: American Nurses Go To War, 1914-1918” (M.A. Thesis, University of Louisville, 1983), 68. Return to text.
  8. On the expectation of cheerfulness, see Bridget Keown, “’I Am Certainly Having a Most Wonderful Experience’: Finding Women’s Expressions of Suffering in Personal Writings,” AHA Today, July 27, 2017, retrieved December 9, 2017; and on both censorship and cheerfulness, see Johnson, “Called to Serve,” 9-10, 111, 121. Return to text.
  9. Desha Breckinridge to Curry Breckinridge, November 28, 1916, Box 845, Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Return to text.
  10. Elizabeth H. Ashe, Intimate Letters from France During America’s First Year of the War (San Francisco: Philopolis Press, 1918), 97. Return to text.
  11. Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge Autobiography, Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago. Return to text.
  12. “Khaki and Mufti: A Detroit Woman’s Observations and Notes of Wartime in London Town,” Detroit Free Press, September 16, 1917, p. D2. Return to text.
  13. Photos and clipping, “Miss Curry Breckinridge in France,” in Lot 4020 (H), “Miscellaneous lot of prints and photographs, chiefly of Desha and Sophonisba Breckinridge and other members of their family,” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. See also Johnson, “Called to Serve,” 93. Return to text.
  14. “Curry Desha Breckinridge,” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 61 (1918): 179-180; Johnson, “Called to Serve,” 4-5, 27-32; and Lisa M. Budreau and Richard M. Prior, ed., Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919 (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army). Return to text.
  15. Chief Nurse Julia Stimson to Parents, October 13, 1918, in “My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I.” Return to text.
  16. Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (New York: Macmillan Company, 1918), 144. Return to text.
  17. Watercolor by E. Carrance, Breckinridge Family Papers, Box 845, Library of Congress. Thanks to Ione Crummy and Elizabeth Hubble for translation assistance. Return to text.
  18. Curry Desha Breckinridge Passport Application, August 4, 1917, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, Ancestry.com; and Sophonisba Breckinridge to Jane Addams, September 4, [1917], Jane Addams Papers Project (microfilm), Reel 9. Return to text.
  19. “Wounded and Ill Soldiers Comforted From Fund Left by Curry Breckinridge,” Lexington Herald, July 16, 1919, p. 4. Return to text.
  20. “War Work Takes Life of Miss Breckinridge,” Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1918, p. 17. Return to text.
  21. Desha Breckinridge, “Mary Curry Desha Breckinridge,” [obituary], Lexington Herald, June 25, 1918, p. 4; see also “Obituary Notice,” 352-353. Return to text.
  22. Reverby, Ordered to Care, 11, 57-59. Return to text.

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