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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Kathryn Leverman, R.N. Part I: "Thus it Happened That Some of the Nurses of B.H. #46 Never Worked With Their Own Unit a Single Day"

Kathryn Leverman's "My Personal Experiences After Arriving Overseas," is another memoir held at the National Archives from an Oregon Base Hospital #46 Nurse. But as we learn from Leverman's account, her identification with Base Hospital #46 was in name only. Leverman traveled with and was assigned to Base Hospital 46 in France during the First World War, but was called to special duty upon her arrival and served at the front with Evacuation Hospital #3 and in Germany with the U.S. Army of Occupation before returning home. Leverman's reminiscences detail the work, illness, and travel she experienced and the impact this service had on her life and views. This is the first of three posts about Leverman and her experiences.

Kathryn Leverman, 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.
According to the Base Hospital 46 nurses personnel file in the Grace Phelps Papers at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Kathryn Leverman was born in Iowa in 1890 and graduated from the St. Elizabeth's Hospital Training School in Baker, Oregon in 1916. She engaged in private duty nursing before joining Base Hospital 46's nursing staff.

When they arrived at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse in July 1918 administrators first tapped Leverman to help with surgery at the neighboring Base Hospital #18 from Johns Hopkins University. This brought her directly to the realities of the conflict. There I "for the first time looked upon the victims of this horrible conflict," she noted. "For two longs days I helped the Ward Surgeon with what seemed an endless changing of bandaging of such ghastly sloughing wounds, that it made one wonder: How can they bear it? And this was only the beginning of what I was to see later on." (1)

Nurses were needed closer to the battlefront given the heat of battle and the many casualties that summer and fall. Eight nurses left Base Hospital #46 and traveled as front line and evacuation hospital nurses thereafter.

Leverman's first days were filled with cleaning and medical work and travel in quick succession. She and the nurses arrived at Chateau Thierry, one of the fiercest of battle locations and set up at a chateau about two kilometers from the city. In her memoir Leverman reprinted the letter of commendation she received for her work there, with evident pride in the recognition of their work. Colonel David Stone praised the work of the nurses: "The building at Chateau Thierry selected for use as a hospital was the best one available but was full of rubbish, dirt, and debris. You and the other nurses pitched in and in a short time this was all cleared away, and the floors, etc. cleaned and the buildings ready to receive the wounded. Then when the wounded commenced to arrive the report states how tirelessly and skillfully the nurses worked assisting the surgeons through long hours at the operating tables, and in caring for the wounded in the various wards, especially the seriously wounded." (2)

One of Leverman's most descriptive passages about the specifics of military nursing concerned her experiences in the wake of the St. Mihiel offensive in the middle of September, 1918:

"A number of the tents were also set up and one of the large Besson[n]eau type was fully equipped for operating; containing eight tables for that purpose, with two extending the entire length on one side to be used for sterile supplies." (3-4) The Bessonneau type tent, pictured here, was set up with a frame, canvas, and windows for ventilation. Leverman indicates that beside this large operating tent two others were set up for the sterile supplies needed for surgery.

American Red Cross Hospital No 5, Auteuil, France, with Bessonneau Tent. US National Library of Medicine
"Those of us who worked in the tent still shiver when we think of those cold September nights," Leverman continued, "when we were the sterile nurses for several operating teams, our hands in wet gloves constantly, and standing within a small space, handing out sterile supplies, and setting up instrument tables. Although this organization was wonderfully equipped, there was no oversupply of aprons, or other articles so we had to be especially careful. Each operating team had a "floating nurse", who was kept so busy that she did not feel the cold quite so much. There were just two of us to handle the sterile supplies for these eight tables, and we did not dare to move outside of our own little sphere. About four A.M. we felt more like a wooden idol than a human being, and oh, how unmercifully cold it could get." (4)

Kathryn A. Leverman, R.N. Base Hospital 46, "My Personal Experiences After Arriving Overseas,"pp. 1-4, 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.