Kane County History: Meet Elgin's Mary Muirhead of The WWI Army Nurse Corp

Kane County History: Meet Elgin’s Mary Muirhead of The WWI Army Nurse Corp

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Elgin History Museum Curator of Collections Beth Nawara in honor of Veterans Day. Photos were submitted by Elizabeth Marston of the Elgin History Museum.

American nurses have a long and fabled history of selfless service during the most critical times of war.

According to E-ANCA.org, nurses were requested to help the Continental Army in 1776 and during the Civil War.

In 1898, when medical care proved inadequate for the service members struck down by yellow fever, malaria and other tropical diseases during the Spanish American War, 1,500 contract nurses were recruited, and they helped to turn the tide with epidemics.

The nursing professionals’ contributions ultimately became the justification for a permanent female nurse corps, and when the United States entered World War I, there were only 403 Army nurses on active duty. But by November 1918, the number rose to 21,460.

Mary Muirhead, born and raised in Elgin, was one of those nurses.

She graduated from Sherman Hospital in 1908 and received a letter dated Feb. 18, 1918, from the American Red Cross, which had been asked to find nurses for service in the U.S. Army and naval hospitals and with base hospitals.

“You are likely to find the methods of procedure in a military hospital somewhat more formal than in a civil hospital and authority more absolute,” the letter said. “May I urge, however, that you accept conditions without comment or criticism and make every effort to adapt yourself cheerfully and without friction to the new environment.

“Red Cross nurses assigned to duty with the Army or the Navy become temporarily members of the Army or Navy Nurse Corps, and subject to all the rules and regulations …Nurses should execute their oath promptly when it is received from the Surgeon General’s Office, and should proceed without delay to the assignment designated in their travel order.”

One of her first stops was at Camp Dodge, IA.

On Nov. 1, 1918, Muirhead arrived in New York City, awaiting her next orders. She arrived by train and promptly wrote her parents a five-page letter on Hotel Breslin paper. The hotel was located at Broadway and 29th Street. It is still there today and is called the Ace Hotel.

In the letter she wrote the following:

“We had a very pretty trip all of the way. Ohio with its pretty old rail fences and rolling country dotted here and there with a bit of woodland surely is very beautiful.”

“New York state I shall say is generously supplied with stones. You see miles of stone fences and lots of pretty old fashioned homes built into the hillsides, and numerous little streams rippling down to the stoney hill side …”

“When we went to the dining room at noon after we left Chicago, the girls all marched single file through the train singing the ‘Yanks are Coming & We’re Going Over.’ I was afraid that some of the passengers would be singing ‘the roughnecks have arrived.’

Mary L. Muirhead’s dog tag.

“We were told tonight that our unit is complete. It seems that they are going to fill it in with a bunch of girls who are here from Texas. We hope it is true as that means our crowd will stay together. You see we would much rather use some other crowd for filling than our own. If it is true that our unit is complete I don’t imagine we will be here a great while.”

She ends the letter writing: “We didn’t open some of our candy until tonight. The candy you got at Blums is lovely and such a fine assortment. We are going to save it to take over with us…”

On Nov. 17, 1918, Mary wrote a three-page letter to her parents again on Hotel Breslin paper. She wrote on the front and back of each page.

The first page and a half is about the things she packed to take to Europe including boots, raincoat, sleeping bag, and a pair of shoes. In New York, she bought coffee to take.

“It is crystallized and all we do is to pour hot water on it. We are also taking some cocoa that is prepared with sugar in it. We each have a bottle of malted milk tablets and some beef cubes. We got several cakes of army chocolate so you see we are planning on eating.”

After waiting 17 days in New York City to be sent over, she is beginning to “…wonder if they really will send us over. Today’s paper says that the sick and wounded are to be returned to this country as soon as possible.”

While waiting in New York, she had her teeth looked at, went to the armory to drill, had her shoes polished, and she was fingerprinted.

On Jan.15, 1919, Muirhead was in Allerey, France, which is about three hours south of Paris by car today. She was working in a hospital ward with 45 patients who were waiting for transportation to be sent home.

On page 2 of the letter, she writes:

“I am working with a Miss Peterson at the ward who has a sister by the name of Mrs. Carlson who lives in Elgin on Liberty Street. …She is very well acquainted with the photographer Carlson and his wife and has visited Elgin.”

Muirhead was living in a barracks and had a fire every day.

“Some of the girls are fixing up our little sitting room as the girls in this barracks are going to serve tea and sandwiches from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. to the girls of ? … who live in the other barracks. This is the first of a series of tea parties to be given weekly. The girls are asked to bring their friends. I am afraid some of these officers will think that tea is not very satisfying after having become accustomed to these French wines.”

In an envelop postmarked April 7, 1919, are two letters one dated April 5 and April 10, 1919. The return address is Evac. Hospital #19. She is now in Trier, Germany.

When Muirhead was there, it was known as Treves. Mary is now working the night shift and writing the letter about 4:15 a.m.

“My patients are fine. I asked them yesterday morning if some one wouldn’t please complain because I wanted something to write in my night report. They said to write, ‘everyone well & all went to go home.’ ”

When she writes to her parents, she is usually upbeat. The April 10, 1919, letter is unusual because she mentions the death of two people in Elgin, and about half the letter is about them and then she writes about an airplane accident where she is located.

“A very sad thing happened out at the areo field. Several planes were flying in formation, and one of the upper planes lost control and fell, striking a plane underneath it and causing that plane to strike another one. Four men were killed. One of the bodies fell in the river, and has not been recovered. Two men that were injured are here in the hospital. It is thought that they will recover.”

Mary Muirhead is located at Evacuation Hospital 19 on April 29, 1919, in Treves Germany.

“Our wards are full of convalescing patients and they require so little care that it is impossible to keep busy.”

The names of Muirhead and her friend Katherine “were posted with five other girls for a trip to Cobleng” They went to a German Opera and the next day they went to Cologne, Germany, and visited a “Cathedral and took a ride over the city and along the banks of the Rhine.”

“General Pershing honored this place with another visit the 23rd. When he inspected the 89 Division, Katherine and I got up early and went out to see the review. We saw Prince Leopold of Belgium, and secretary Baker and the other members of the congressional party who were visiting here.”

At the end of the letter, she wrote:

“I guess you will think it is strange that I don’t say anything about coming home, but have just been waiting to hear some thing definite to write you. First we hear that we are going to be relieved some time this month, and then along comes another rumor that we stay awhile longer and relieve some other hospital.

“I don’t know any thing about it but think things look as though we would be making some sort of a move before long and I imagine it will be homeward.”

The museum does not have a document stating when Mary Muirhead returned home, but she did have a written note documenting some of her pay. She received a state bonus of $272.50, an Army bonus of 1,222.91, a final payment and bonus of $200.53 for a total of $1,695.94.

In today’s money that would be $26,398.24. She did return to Elgin, continued to work as a nurse and lived in Elgin until her death.

Thank you to the family of the Estate of William Roberts and William Muirhead, which donated Muirhead family items to the Elgin History Museum.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The building was designed in the Greek Revival style. The museum has a staff that helps welcome visitors to the museum, educates the public about Elgin history and assists with research inquiries.

The museum is presently closed due to the governor’s orders. Check out the museum online at www.elginhistory.org and on YouTube, Elgin History Museum.


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