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Monday, January 26, 2015

More Getting Base Hospital 46 Ready for Service: Grace Phelps's Challenging Recruitment Tasks

Grace Phelps, R.N., Superintendent of Nurses at Multnomah County Hospital in Portland, served as Chief Nurse for Base Hospital 46 for most of its existence in the US and in France from 1917 to early 1919. A wonderful online exhibit from the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University "Grace Phelps, R.N. -- A Reverie in Sepia" has more on the life and work of this remarkable Oregon woman.

I'm posting about Base Hospital 46, one of the many hospital units organized around university and civilian hospitals prior to and in the early months of the US entry into the war. Phelps had the complicated and challenging task of recruiting nurses and female staff members (stenographers, dieticians and laboratory technicians) for the base hospital unit. Before the unit sailed for France in the summer of 1917 the Red Cross called for 50, then 65, then 100 nurses to staff the unit.

"Prominent Figures in Base Hospital 46, Soon to See Service in France," Oregonian, March 17, 1918, Section 1, 14.
In the midst of this process the Oregonian published an article about the preparations featuring photos of chief surgeon Robert C. Yenney, longtime faculty member at the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU) and chief nurse Grace Phelps. It's interesting to think about the extent to which staff members and readers may have seen this as a professional partnership with nurses as a vital part of the unit.

The article that accompanied this image answered a question that I had about the unit -- just how did the projected size of Base Hospital Unit 46 compare with the size of hospitals in Portland at the time?

"Base Hospital 46 Awaiting Its Call," Oregonian, March 17, 1918, Section 1, 14.

 According to the Oregonian article, the projected Base Hospital 46 unit would be more than twice the size of Portland's two major hospitals, Good Samaritan and St. Vincent's Hospital, combined.

The section titled, "The Nurses Trip Overseas," in Otis Wight et al, On Active Service with Base Hospital 46, 55-58 is not attributed to an author, but it appears that Grace Phelps authored it. She starts with a section that hints at some of the challenges she faced in recruitment.

Otis Wight et al., On Active Service with Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920)
She received, she said, "all sorts of applications" from women anxious to show their patriotism and to "get to France." She had to go through these with attention to Red Cross/Army Nurse Corps Reserve Nurse requirements for age, marital status, and ability to meet the physical requirements of the job, and that narrowed the field. More in a later post about vaccinations, health, and illness in France, something she mentions briefly here.

It's important to note that Phelps addressed the question of finances here. In addition to raising funds for the unit discussed in a previous post, nurses were expected to furnish their own clothing and uniforms. Phelps was sensitive to this, writing here that "Many nurses who had family responsibilities found they could not meet this expense." The Portland chapter of the Red Cross assisted with these expenses, making it possible to meet the quota of nurses needed.

Phelps's concluding sentence in this section speaks volumes about the task but without the detail we crave: "Many and varied sad tales of the organization of the nursing personnel of our unit could be told, but we have learned to avoid sad stories." Additional research from the Phelps papers reveals some of these "sad tales" for staffing of nurses and female personnel, including a charge of espionage in one case, but I have to save some of the details for my upcoming book!

The Oregonian published a list of the basic professional requirements for nurses to serve in a base hospital unit (added to those Phelps discussed above). They reflect the growing professionalization of nursing education and licensing/registration by 1917, and we'll end with those today:

"Red Cross Appeals to Nurses to Enroll for Duty," Oregonian, July 29, 1917, Section 3, 5.