Friday, March 8, 2013

Emily Parsons, born March 8, 1824

Emily Parsons was born on March 8, 1824 in Taunton, Massachusetts, the daughter of Professor Theophilus Parsons of the Harvard Law School and granddaughter of the late Chief Justice Parsons of Massachusetts. She was educated in Boston.

She was 37 years old and living in Cambridge at the beginning of the Civil War.

Fort Schuyler

Fort Schuyler Hospital
She had a strong desire to enlist in the army as a nurse, despite impaired vision, some deafness from scarlet fever and lameness. Her father was reluctant but finally agreed, and at the age of 37, Parsons enrolled in nursing school at Massachusetts General Hospital in preparation for caring for sick and wounded Union soldiers.

After eighteen months of training, she was placed in charge of a ward attending fifty wounded soldiers at Fort Schuyler Military Hospital on Long Island in October 1862. For two months, she performed the duties of hospital nurse, but her health deteriorated further.
After a rest, Parsons wrote to Dorothea Dix, superintendent of Union nurses, offering her services wherever they might be needed. At the same time, she became friends with Jessie Benton Fremont, who recommended Parsons to the Western Sanitary Commission at St. Louis, and she was immediately telegraphed to come at once to St. Louis.  Every available building in St. Louis was converted into a hospital, and the sick and wounded were brought from Vicksburg, Arkansas Post and Helena up the river to be cared for at St. Louis and other military posts. At Memphis and Mound City (near Cairo), at Quincy, Illinois, and the cities on the Ohio River, the hospitals were in an equally crowded condition.

In January, 1863, Parsons went to St. Louis, and was assigned by James E. Yeatman, president of the Western Sanitary Commission, to the Lawson Hospital.  A few weeks later, she was placed as head nurse on the hospital steamer City of Alton. A large supply of sanitary stores were entrusted to her care, and the steamer proceeded down the Mississippi River.
The City of Alton Steamboat
At Vicksburg, Mississippi the ship was loaded with four hundred invalid soldiers, many of them sick past recovery, and returned as far as Memphis. On this trip, the strength and endurance of Parsons were tried to the utmost in caring for the helpless and suffering men, several of whom died on the passage up the river. During this period, she contracted malaria.  At Memphis, after transferring the sick to the hospitals, an order was received from General Ulysses S. Grant to load the boat with troops and return immediately to Vicksburg, and Parsons and the other female nurses were returned to St. Louis.

For a few weeks after her return, Parsons suffered from an attack of malarious fever.  On her recovery she was assigned to duty as superintendent of female nurses at the Benton Barracks Hospital, the largest of all the hospitals in St. Louis, built out of the amphitheatre and other buildings at the fair grounds of the St. Louis Agricultural Society.  In this large hospital, there were often two thousand patients, and besides the male nurses detailed from the army, the corps of female nurses consisted of one to each ward, whose duty it was to attend to the special diet of the weaker patients, to see that the wards were kept in order, the beds properly made, the dressing of wounds properly done, to minister to the wants of the patients, and to give them words of good cheer, both by reading and conversation – softening the rougher treatment and manners of the male nurses.

The monotonous army diet of hard bread, salted meat, and coffee without milk needed to be supplemented with fruits, vegetables and dairy products; and inexperienced soldiers needed to learn about proper drainage in the camps and how to set up tents for maximum ventilation. Parsons and others took it upon themselves to give proper attention to the dietary needs and hygiene of the soldiers.

After serving six months in this capacity, recurrent malarial fever sent Parsons back home to Massachusetts. After a short rest, she returned to St. Louis and resumed her position at Benton Barracks. She continued to work there until August 1864, when ill health sent her home again.

By the time she recovered, the war was over, and she devoted herself at home to working for the freedmen and refugees. She collected clothing and garden seeds for them, many boxes of which she shipped to the Western Sanitary Commission at St. Louis to be distributed in the Mississippi Valley, where they were greatly needed.

In the spring of 1865, she took a great interest in the Sanitary Fair held at Chicago, collected many valuable gifts for it, and was sent for by the Committee of Arrangements to go out as one of the managers of the department furnished by the New Jerusalem Church – the different churches having separate departments in the Fair.

Parsons raised money to establish her own charity hospital for women and children, which she opened in 1867 in Cambridgeport. After a year, the hospital was forced to move, but reopened in 1869 as the Cambridge Hospital for Women and Children, operating from a rented house. It closed in 1871 for lack of funds.

Emily Elizabeth Parsons died of a stroke on May 19, 1880. 

Parsons Building, Mount Auburn Hospital
Efforts to raise funds for a hospital continued in her memory. In 1883, Dr. Morrill Wyman purchased a nine-acre plot on the Charles River near Gerry's Landing, and the building of Mount Auburn Hospital began. The first hospital structure was completed in 1886, and named the Parsons Building in Emily's honor.

After her death, her father published her correspondence detailing her experiences as a war nurse, Memoir of Emily Elizabeth Parsons.

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