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Monday, March 30, 2015

Base Hospital 46 Nurses Triumph Over Laundry: "We Were Quite Proud of Our Establishment"

These memorable First World War Base Hospital 46 images from the Oregon Health & Science University Digital Commons help us visualize the environment in which the unit's nurses lived and worked. Pause for a moment and consider what these images convey about the dirt and mud that was part of every moment of their time there. Then consider what this meant for the surgical and medical work in which the nurses were engaged.

“Base Hospital 46 street and barracks,” OHSU Digital Commons, accessed March 28, 2015,
“Greeting at Barracks 3 at Base Hospital 46,” OHSU Digital Commons, accessed March 28, 2015,
Keeping clothes, uniforms, and bedding clean was crucial for the nurses, not only for comfort but for controlling disease. The Base Hospital 46 memoirs and poems in Record Group 112 at the National Archives about which I've been blogging most often listed an author, but several pieces do not have an author listed. One of these, "Our Laundry," likely written by Chief Nurse Grace Phelps or her successor Eleanor Donaldson, gives us a sense of the challenges Base Hospital 46 nurses encountered with keeping clean and their ingenuity and hard work in overcoming those challenges.

When the nurses arrived at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse in July 1918 there were no facilities for laundry set up. "We either had to wash our own clothes or depend upon the French villagers," the "Our Laundry" author noted.

Interestingly, the model for a base hospital unit included a bath but no laundry facilities.

General Layout of Hospital Unit Type A, Medical Department US Army WWI, Vol 2 p 242

When the army did establish a laundry the nurses had serious trouble with the loss of precious uniforms and the aprons they wore in surgery and ward work. "About the first of August the American laundry was erected but it refused to function. After much delay we were instructed to send our uniforms and aprons. This we did and the first time they were returned there were 18 uniforms and 42 aprons short, which we never recovered. The next attempt was 30 uniforms and 20 aprons [missing]."

The sheer volume of laundry for the entire seven base hospital complex at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse with a full capacity of 13,000 meant that it was "not possible for their plant to do the immense amount of work, and there was always a shortage of water."

Clean bedding was crucial for patients and staff. In addition to the dirt all around the unit patients' bedding contained body fluids and fleas were a constant threat to patients and staff. So the Base Hospital 46 staff "used the field sterilizer for caring for the bedding." This kept it close and under their control. "We could at least have the bedding made safe and have it when needed for changing beds." Their sterilizer was perhaps like the one pictured below, while not mounted on a truck for a mobile unit. It used hot water pressure and steam to sterilize. Imagine the work of laundering bedding, so much bedding, in such a unit.

Sterilizing Truck, Medical Department US Army WWI, Vol 8 p 197
Base Hospital 46 nurses relied on French civilian women and their own work to do their personal laundry with hot water, suds, and washboards. "We partitioned off [a] small end of our mess hall, [and] the Red Cross furnished a French range. It was a task for one person to keep the fire going when hot water was wanted. The Medical supply issued tubs to us and we bought wash boards. Our unit carpenter put up clothes lines about the walls. This was because we had rain most of the time, and clothes had to be dried indoors. A maid helped with the fire and carried water. Each nurse was responsible for her own laundry. We were quite proud of our establishment."

"Our Laundry," Box 9, Base Hospitals, World War I, Historical Records of the Army Nurses Corps Historical Data File, 1898-1947, Entry 10, Record Group 112, Records of the Office of Surgeon General [Army], National Archives, College Park, Maryland.