Pioneering Black Nurses & The Great Influenza of 1918

October 13, 2020

Pioneering Black Nurses & The Great Influenza of 1918

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of science and medicine is the way that women and people of colour have consistently advocated for themselves as scientists and professionals, often against very strong strong opposition from the establishment. And in some cases their efforts have given a helping hand by wider events. Many people are familiar with the ways that the First and Second World Wars expanded opportunities in fields such as engineering, but fewer know about the impact of the Great Influenza of 1918. One of our recent acquisitions reflects both these aspects of the history of medicine: it's a first edition of Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses by nursing administrator and activist Adah B. Thoms, with the ownership signature of Aileen Cole Stewart, one of the groundbreaking nurses featured in the text.

Adah Thoms (1863-1943), depicted in the author photo above, was a nurse and educational administrator who made great strides toward equality for Black nurses in the United States. 

Thoms was born in Virginia and moved to New York for her education, first at the Women's Infirmary and School of Massage and then at the Lincoln Hospital and Home in the Bronx, which had been established to treat impoverished Black patients. Thoms worked as head nurse at the hospital and eventually became the assistant director. As an administrator she established the teaching of public health — still an emerging field at the time  in the nursing program, and even took the course herself (Ogilvie, Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, p. 1286).

Thoms was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, serving as the organisation's treasurer and then president. She advocated for the equality of Black nurses internationally, and "fought hard... to gain the admission of black nurses into the American Red Cross. Although the head of the Red Cross agreed, this was vetoed by the Surgeon General of the United States. By 1917, one African-American nurse was enrolled in the Red Cross but given no assignment. By 1918, the great influenza epidemic made the use of all available nurses urgent, and eighteen Black nurses were enrolled in the Army Nurse Corps where, although they treated sick soldiers of all backgrounds, they themselves lived in segregated quarters" (Ogilvie, p. 1286).

In 1929 Thoms published Pathfinders, which charts the history of Black nurses, beginning by pointing out the medical skills of enslaved women and Harriet Tubman's work as a nurse for the Union army. The text goes on to chart the development of professional nursing education and careers for Black women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Below, two of the nurses featured are Jessie Sleet Scales, a social service nurse in New York City, and Ludie A. Andrews, who secured registration for Black nurses in the state of Georgia:

Among the many women featured in Pathfinders are the eighteen Black nurses who were able to enroll in the Army Nursing Corps in 1918 thanks to Thoms's advocacy and the increased demand for nurses resulting from the influenza pandemic. One of these women, Aileen Cole Stewart, is not only featured in Pathfinders, but owned this copy. In this photo from the book she is depicted standing at the bottom left with her colleagues at Camp Sherman in Ohio:

This is her ownership inscription in the book:

And her gift inscription presenting the book to a friend or relative named Jean at Christmas in 1948 can be seen under the author photo in the image at the beginning of this post.

Stewart completed her nursing training in 1914, and "her dedication and courage helped her climb the ranks to become one of the first African American women to serve in the Army Nursing Corps" (Alexander, National Women's History Museum biography).

Though little is known about Stewart's early life, she later wrote about her experiences as a student nurse at the Freedmen’s Hospital Training School in Washington, DC and Howard University Medical School (Cole, "Ready to Serve," The American Journal of Nursing 63, no. 9, 1963). After completing her training Stewart applied to join the Army Nursing Corps through the American Red Cross, but because the services were still segregated she was not assigned to active duty.

"In October 1918, everything changed. African American Red Cross nurses were called into duty when soldiers and workers began to die of the flu. The Red Cross sent Stewart to Putney, West Virginia with another nurse. Conditions for the railroad workers soon got worse, and Stewart was sent by herself to a small town called Cascade. She worked alone in the mountains until she received a letter from the director of field nursing at the American Red Cross asking Stewart to serve. On December 1, 1918, Stewart began her service in the Army Nurse Corps, along with 17 other African American nurses. Half of the nurses went to Camp Sherman in Ohio, and half went to Camp Grant in Illinois. Stewart was stationed at Camp Sherman, where the African American nurses lived in segregated areas" (NWHM biography).

After the pandemic Stewart worked as a public health nurse in New York City. "She earned a degree in public health nursing from the University of Washington at the age of 68 and continued to volunteer with the Red Cross youth program until she died” (NWHM biography).

The Great Influenza provided an unusual opportunity for Black nurses, but the groundwork had already been laid by decades of advocacy on the part of Adah B. Thoms and other Black medical professionals and educators. And it was brave and determined nurses like Aileen Cole Stewart — who fought to serve despite all the obstacles before them — who stepped into those newly opened roles.