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“I Assumed It Was Urgent”: Helen Hurd’s Story

As an archivist, I gain deep knowledge of people through their personal papers. I come to appreciate their senses of humor or feel moved by their personal tragedies. A decade ago, I became intrigued by a woman whose collection contains signed photographs of 1920s movie stars. Helen Hurd’s journey from Hollywood reporter to Rutgers University professor and dean fascinated me. In her 90s, she self-published an autobiography, Hurdles: My Fifty Years of Working with Men, 1929–1979 (1998). Although focused on her career and experiences in male-dominated workplaces, it also included details of her personal life, including a brief marriage in her early 20s. I admired Hurd’s spirit and humor along with her achievements, but I was disappointed in how little Hollywood there was in the book, not to mention her declaration that she wasn’t a feminist because she “like[d] men too much.”[1]

In 2016, several years after encountering Hurd’s story, I heard an interview with author Adam Cohen on NPR’s Fresh Air. He was discussing his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, about American eugenics and the 1927 Buck v. Bell U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized sterilization. Cohen described medical sterilization by salpingectomy – in which part of the fallopian tube is removed – saying “in many, many cases the women involved were not told what was being done to them. They might be told that they were having an appendectomy.”

That set off a mental ping. I had heard that story somewhere: an appendectomy that was really a sterilization, but couldn’t pin it down. The next day, I heard the program again, feeling that annoying “why do I know this?” sensation. Suddenly I knew – Helen Hurd had written about an appendectomy that wasn’t an appendectomy in her memoir. I knew I needed to go back to Hurdles to confirm my memory, in part because I was shocked this episode hadn’t registered with me when I read it.

 

A book cover featuring an aqua background and a white square with the title printed across it.
Cover of Hurdles: My Fifty Years of Working with Men, 1929–1979 by Helen Gilchrist Hurd. (Courtesy Amazon)

Helen Gilchrist Hurd was born in 1903 and grew up in Missouri. Although her marriage to Jim Tureman was initially happy, his mother’s behavior caused problems. She constantly stopped by and openly disapproved of Helen. “Mother T” also suffered from mental illness and harbored an obsession that America was “full of Catholic spies from Rome,” a fear she turned toward Hurd, even though she was a Methodist.[2]

In 1926, Hurd began experiencing health issues:

Sometime early in 1926, I fell apart. Mother T took me to her doctor, where we were told that I needed an appendectomy. I assumed it was urgent, as the doctor got me into a small hospital that afternoon and he and another doctor operated on me that evening. One thing that struck me was that neither doctor wore white uniforms; they were in their shirt sleeves and street clothes for the operation that evening.[3]

Hurd was very ill post-operation. A nurse urged her to call her parents, who moved her to another hospital where she was treated for peritonitis and septicemia.[4] Hurd’s overall health finally improved after a thyroid operation the following year. She divorced Jim, who died soon after at the age of twenty-five from septicemia, most likely related to alcoholism.

Hurd’s description of the operation is unsettling: saying she “assumed it was urgent” suggests she wasn’t experiencing symptoms associated with appendicitis, such as pain and vomiting, and the detail about “street clothes” is jarring. Hurd reveals this had meaning.

It was not until the early 1940s that my New Jersey doctor asked me about what was done to me during that operation. I told him it was an appendectomy, but I wrote to the nurse. . . . She wrote back that it was a tubal ligation, and that the hospital was closed later and she lost her job. Jim’s father had told me that the operation had cost $5,000. I wondered then why an appendectomy had to be so expensive. I discovered the full truth twenty years later.[5]

Although Hurd doesn’t discuss the operation again, she makes several telling references to it. She calls it “my disastrous operation for ‘removal of appendix’” using scare quotes to convey her belief it was a lie.[6] She also calls it “the illegal operation,” recognizing it as a crime.[7] Her account implies the appendectomy was a pretense and that her husband’s parents paid to have her sterilized.

Almost nothing in Hurd’s papers at Rutgers sheds light on what happened, except for the nurse’s letter.

To get down to business – I have only a very hazy recollection of what your operation was all about, however, I thought you had an appendix and both Tubes removed. I don’t think anything else was done. Obviously the fallopian tubes were infected or they wouldn’t have come out.[8]

The nurse suggested Hurd contact the doctor, named J. H. Crenshaw, but she doesn’t appear to have followed up. The nurse’s language isn’t reassuring. She isn’t sure about anything. If her memory was correct, perhaps Hurd had an infection in her fallopian tubes, but the physicians never told Hurd. Or was she told but too sick to remember? We may never know if Hurd was intentionally sterilized but I think it’s more important that Hurd believed she was.

One episode in Hurdles highlights the impact of Helen’s lack of knowledge about her operation. Describing an unanticipated sexual encounter in the early 1930s, Hurd says:

We discussed the situation at length later and decided to forget it and remain friends. I had a week’s worry as to whether there might be an unfortunate aftermath of the evening, so that I would have to marry him, but all was well.[9]

This coded language about waiting to learn if she was pregnant is tinged with the irony that another ten years passed before Hurd learned she’d been unable to conceive at that time. Anyone who has been through a week like Hurd’s knows how agonizing that wait is. As she wrote Hurdles more than fifty years later, I wonder how knowing the truth might have reframed that episode and other choices she made.

When I revisited Hurd’s story after hearing Cohen’s interview, I felt guilty. I had missed this trauma because it wasn’t what I was looking for when I read her book. I immediately wanted to call attention to her story. I tried tracking down information about Hurd and her stories to corroborate them, wanting to see if I could follow a thread that “proved” the operation had been a sterilization. I ultimately realized I didn’t have the time, knowledge, or resources to pursue the many strands. Although I believed her, my training as an archivist has taught me to look for other sources that confirm an account is true, an instinct that has been honed by the climate of misinformation in recent years. As an archivist, I knew how challenging following trails could be.

A black and white photo of a white man in a black hat.
Harry Laughlin, c. 1929. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

One angle led me down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory. I learned the doctor named in the nurse’s letter, Dr. J. [John] H. Crenshaw, received his degree in 1899 from the American School of Osteopathy at Kirksville, Missouri (now A. T. Still University). Kirksville was home to Harry Laughlin, a proponent of eugenics and sterilization who served as the director of the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring, New York. Cohen describes him as one of the “villains” in Imbeciles. Laughlin’s four brothers attended the American School of Osteopathy, several overlapping with Crenshaw. So, it’s possible to connect dots from Hurd to Laughlin, but they are disparate. Tracing Hurd’s account of a false appendectomy to a doctor directly influenced by Laughlin is possible by putting the players in geographical proximity, but one does not equal the other.

And what would it mean to make this connection? Perhaps it would be meaningful if Hurd’s operation pitted her against the “great men” of her day (like Carrie Buck in Buck v. Bell). Perhaps it would somehow mitigate her victimization to connect it to a grand machine rather than see it as the result of a family conflict. Realizing that she was sterilized in the age of eugenics made me want to tie her operation to its architect because it would mean she’d survived and thrived despite a brush with one of history’s villains.

The thought of Helen Hurd writing in her 90s about being victimized by people who should have been looking out for her is painful. Her anger comes through, but so does her resilience. Hurdles allowed her to tell her story of how she made places for herself and became the agent and reinventor of her life. Recognizing what I’d missed about Hurd’s experience left me wanting to share her story more broadly and to wonder how many other stories like hers are waiting to be brought further into the light.

Notes

    1. Helen Gilchrist Hurd, Hurdles: My Fifty Years of Working with Men, 1929–1979, (Highland Park, NJ 1998), 117.
    2. Hurd, Hurdles, 36–37.
    3. Hurd, 38.
    4. Hurd, 38–39.
    5. Hurd, 39.
    6. Hurd, 67.
    7. Hurd, 176. Missouri did not have legalized sterilization until the Buck v Bell decision in 1927.
    8. Letter, Leeta Leidel to Helen Hurd, January 4, 1943. Box 6, Folder 1, R-MC 056 Helen Hurd Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries (underline and capitalization of “tubes” hers).
    9. Hurd, Hurdles, 65.

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