Today in History:

Emily Parsons

Emily Parsons faced the challenges of an accident in her childhood that left her blind, became partially deaf as a teenager due to complications from scarlet fever and suffered an ankle injury as a young woman that left her unable to stand for prolonged periods of time.

Despite her disabilities she remained determined to lead a meaningful and productive life.  Emily Parsons felt a deep calling to serve others, particularly those affected by the war. In 1861, as the Civil War engulfed the nation, she volunteered as a nurse, facing skepticism and doubts about her ability to fulfill the demanding role.  Her father was reluctant but finally agreed, and at the age of 37 Miss Parsons enrolled in nursing school at Massachusetts General Hospital in preparation for caring for sick and wounded Union soldiers.

During her training she learned not only nursing skills, but also observed the management of a well-run hospital. “This preparation, coupled with her own executive gifts, gave her a professional competence almost unique among Civil War nurses.” (Notable American Women).

Her blindness and deafness presented unique challenges in providing care and communicating with patients. However, she was able to overcome these obstacles.

After eighteen months of training, she was placed in charge of a ward attending fifty wounded soldiers at Fort Schuyler Military Hospital.  She found the hospital to be understaffed and unclean, so she set to work immediately.  Within a week, the head surgeon remarked that her ward was “the nicest looking one in the whole hospital.”

For two months, she performed the duties of hospital nurse, but her health deteriorated.

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 of 1863 Parsons began nursing at Lawson Hospital. Within three weeks she was appointed to a more senior position as head nurse of a hospital boat called the City of Alton.  The boat traveled the Mississippi River to Vicksburg and took on 400 sick and wounded soldiers to take them to Memphis hospitals. 

"I am understanding what it is to be in the army. I never before was among people who took it so seriously, because I never was where the war was around us, nor ever before was going into the midst of it," Parsons wrote.

During the trip Emily contracted malaria, and upon returning to St. Louis required several weeks to recover.  She wrote that “I feel sometimes as if I were not good enough for the work, and that was the reason it was taken from me for a time… I am going to try very hard, and keep my thoughts and actions right and Christianly, and then, if it is best for me, I shall have this work to do, or rather, be able to do it.”  Once recovered, she became supervisor of nurses at the Benton Barracks Hospital near St. Louis, which had 2,500 beds and was largest of all the hospitals near St. Louis, built out of the amphitheatre and other buildings at the fair grounds of the St. Louis Agricultural Society.

Under Parsons lead, the Benton Barracks Hospital became famous for its excellence, and for the rapid recovery of its patients. It was not often that the army surgeons gave a fair trial to female nursing in the hospitals.

After the war ended, Parsons returned home and began to raise money to establish a general hospital in Cambridge.  Two years later, in 1867, she opened a hospital in a rented house where she provided treatment for poor women and children with the assistance of two local doctors.  In 1871 a general charter was granted for the Cambridge Hospital, but it suffered financially and closed in 1872.  The fundraising efforts continued after Parsons' death in her memory, eventually producing sufficient funds to purchase a nine-acre plot overlooking the Charles River near Gerry’s Landing in 1883. The building of Cambridge Hospital, later renamed Mount Auburn Hospital began and the first structure completed in 1886 was named the Parsons Building in Emily’s honor. 

Her father published her correspondence entitled Memoir of Emily Elizabeth Parsons, detailing her experiences.