Search This Blog

Monday, March 16, 2015

Eleanor Donaldson, R.N.: The Base Hospital Nurses Club Part I -- "In This Setting We Spent Our Time Looking Over Oregonians, Journals, and Telegrams, and Reading Letters from Home"

Eleanor Donaldson, R.N. left both published and unpublished reminiscences and memoirs about her World War I service. I've been blogging about some of the voices of women from Oregon's Base Hospital 46 in the First World War, including letters home reprinted in newspapers and reminiscences of war service held at the National Archives. Donaldson is the only woman to have a section in Otis Wight's On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (1920) attributed to her by name. She also had a great deal to say about nurses' treatment in France during mobilization in an unpublished memoir now at the National Archives. Donaldson will feature in a number of posts across these Base Hospital 46 entries.

Eleanor Donaldson, R.N.
Grace Phelps Papers, Box 3, Binder 5, Base Hospital 46 Staff Files, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
Newspaper accounts and Base Hospital 46 personnel information in the Grace Phelps Papers at OHSU let us know that Eleanor Donaldson was born in Ireland in 1874 and graduated from St. Vincent's Hospital Training School for Nurses in Portland in 1902. Donaldson became the acting chief nurse of Base Hospital 46 after Chief Nurse Grace Phelps was transferred to head the nursing work at Base Hospital 81 on February 1, 1919. She served in that capacity as Base Hospital 46 personnel were demobilized that spring.

Donaldson's "The Nurses Club" appears on pages 151-53 of Wight's On Active Service with Base Hospital 46. She had a gift for writing and detail and linked her emotions and wartime experiences with her descriptions. She wrote: "In one of the British tropical tents our "Club" began its brief life; brief, but a separate memory for each minute, for things happened in those days. The tent was roomy, one hundred and twenty feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and nearly five feet high at the sides. The cerise lining and yellow interlining gave a wonderfully soft and restful light. Black oilcloth covered the floor." The nurses scrounged for furnishings and used things at hand in creative ways for chairs, tables, and sofas. This tent was the first of two club spaces for the Base Hospital 46 nurses.

The nurses, she wrote, spent their time in this club space reading copies of Portland's three major newspapers: the Oregonian, the Oregon Journal, and the Portland Telegram, and "reading our letters from home. Here we discussed the probable end of the war, the downfall of kings, the Owl drugstore robbery [in downtown Portland], and the latest rumor." (151)
They gathered for afternoon tea and if supplies were sometimes meager "there was always tea and chatter." When the war came close and brought casualties from Chateau Thierry, "the time spent in the room was short and the chatter confined to a hurried question" about a case or patient. (151-52).

The nurses claimed space for a sturdier club in the fall of 1918 after wounded German prisoners were evacuated and a ward building became available. Wight's On Active Service features a posed photograph of nurses and a male officer in this second "club." This wonderful image is also available at the OHSU Library Digital Commons at
Otis Wight, et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 151.
German prisoners of war constructed a fireplace of rock and cement, "the only fireplace in any club we knew--how the fame of that fireplace went abroad!" Hospital 46 staff members helped and added kitchen and dressing rooms, seats, shelves, and "window boxes according to Miss Phelps' blue prints." (152) Wallpaper, curtains, cushions, and posters came from an Armistice Day trip to Paris.

"Afternoon tea went on daily," Donaldson recalled. Then the nurses prepared for the celebration of Christmas, with decorations, garlands and wreath pictured above. In this slower-paced period, when the group expected to be able to return home, she remembered "the impromptu parties and little dinners beside the fire" and ghost stories. The "climax of memories comes," she concluded, "when the music over, the dancers gone, one turns for a last look down the long room through the ivy garlands to the glowing fire." (153)

Within this "safe" space nurses created community and maintained links with the world back home. They also created a refuge from the horrors of the war surrounding them. More on what that war brought to their doorstep in the next post.