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Inside the office of Roger Noyes’ Slingerlands home stands a broad, wooden desk, something that’s been in the family. But, the desk has a history with a significance that stretches well beyond that of the Noyes family.
The desk was once his second great aunt’s, Clara Noyes. The name once held more significance than simply as Roger Noyes’ distant relative. At a time when women could not vote, Clara Noyes played a leading role in directing aid during some of history’s most noted events, and set the foundation for standards in nursing education.
“I had heard some family stories about her life,” said Roger Noyes. “But, I think the biggest entry into learning about her was from inheriting her desk. It’s funny how when you receive an artifact like that, that was once owned by somebody in the past, it really becomes a physical symbol for you. In a sense that it’s a reminder of that person… it prompts a lot of inquiry.”
The author initially knew of her as a “famous nurse” who worked with the Red Cross. The depth of her story lacked details of her role as director of the American Red Cross Nursing Service. What was shared glossed over her responsibility to orchestrate the emergency medical response for World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic and the 1927 flooding of Mississippi.
Through the help of family, the internet, and investigative skills he learned as a newspaper reporter, Roger started to learn more details. In one newspaper archive, he said, he received more than 6,000 hits by searching her name, alone.
Clara was born in 1869 to New England family, her father a Civil War veteran. She established a strong work ethic at the Maryland farm in which she grew up. When she decided to attend Johns Hopkins School of Nursing at 27, despite standards established by Florence Nightingale in England, nursing was a disorganized trade.
“Especially in that time, nursing was a new profession,” said Roger. “My aunt was a beneficiary to this system that was created by Florence Nightingale.”
Schools started developing graduate courses based on Nightingale’s curriculum at her nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.
Roger spent two years researching and writing his book, “Clara D. Noyes, R.N., Life of a Global Nursing Leader.” In it, he details how nursing evolved from a trade to a well-structured profession. One that provided women the opportunity to rise to the ranks of influential executives before women’s suffrage. It was from Clara’s position with the Red Cross where she was able to fight for equal pay for nurses.
“My aim in this book is to show how the women-led American Red Cross Nursing Service enrolled, deployed and demobilized wartime nurses in a structure that paralleled – and was virtually indistinct from – the larger War Department effort to supply American troops during the First World War,” said Roger. “Oftentimes these structures stood in conflict, but the War Department’s need for a mass mobilization of professional nurses, all of them women, also provided leverage for the advancement of women’s causes, and many of these causes intersected with the nurse professionalization movements.”
Before her death in 1936, Clara would have direct ties to the largest medical institutions known today. There’s St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Mass., and New England Hospital for Women, for which she served as superintendent. She played a pivotal role at Bellevue Hospital’s nurse training school in New York City. She would later be named president of the American Nurses Association and subsequently become chair of the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee.
Clara also founded the first not-for-profit school for midwives in the United States, published extensively on nursing issues of the day and worked in the post-war period to oversee nursing relief activities in Europe and to develop schools of Nursing in France, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
“Not to diminish icons like Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, who shares my aunt’s name and worked at the Red Cross, she would exhaustively name them in speeches,” said Roger. In his book, there is a composite of his aunt standing at the foot of a stairwell with Nightingale and Jane Delano from a Red Cross postcard. In her time, she was held in as high regard. “She was coming from a very similar tradition… If you include Clara Barton, those four figures really loom large in the public imagination.”
The book is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other sites.
Michael Hallisey is Managing Editor of Spotlight Newspapers.