A Snapshot of Bessie Baker, Hopkins Nurse

March 29, 2017
by Ellouise Schoettler

Ellouise Schoettler is a storyteller whose living history performance Ready to Serve is drawn from letters from Maryland nurses who served in France in 1917-1919. She is appearing throughout Maryland during World War I Centennial events.

Writing the story Ready to Serve has given me the opportunity to meet some very special women and to know them through their own letters and through the letters of others.

Bessie Baker, was born in 1875 into a large Maryland Eastern Shore family and came to Baltimore around 1898 to study at Johns Hopkins Nursing School. After graduating in 1902, she worked in Baltimore as Assistant Superintendent of Nurses. In 1916, at age 41, she was selected as Chief Nurse for the Johns Hopkins Base Hospital 18, which was the first American medical unit sent to France in June 1917.

In their letters, her nurses speak of her affectionately as warm, humorous, and good natured while also being a strong leader who expected the best from those who worked under her.

Baker wrote a report to the Red Cross on the work at Hopkins Base Hospital 18 that dealt with the medical work and the difficulties which she called “their ridiculous plight.” Her nurses lived in barren circumstances through the coldest, brutal winters up to that time in France where the medicines froze in the phials, their feet ached from the cold, and several of the nurses died from pneumonia.

In addition to the challenges she faced, another side of Baker’s  experience emerges from her letters. She poetically described the early fall landscape and colorful foliage:  “the valley blazed in a shimmer of blended color, the wild mustard tawny in the sunlight, the winding Meuse River, the meadows bright with daisies, gentians and poppies.”

On a brief sightseeing trip shortly after the nurses  arrived in France, Baker reflected on her visit to the village where Jeanne d’Arc was born:  “In that humble chamber where Jeanne d”Arc first saw the light three hundred years ago, I could not help thinking today of the thousands of women, French, English, and American, going to war in France, though not to the fanfare of trumpets that cheered for the Maid to Orleans.”

Several weeks after the Armistice was signed and the fighting ended, the staff at Hospital 18 gathered for a Thanksgiving meal on November 29. Bessie Baker opened her remarks by remembering those colleagues and friends they would leave behind in a small military cemetery nearby:

“In the future when I am asked about the American Army nurses who served in France I will think of you. I will tell them how proud I am of blue-lipped women, heavy laden with layers of clothing, standing near a red-hot pot-bellied stove trying to get warm – and yet doing their very best for their patients.

We came to do a job here.  You have done your best and now, it is time to turn our eyes West and return home.”

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Category: Chauatauqua