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UVA's Bjoring Center Shines Historic Spotlight On WWII Nurses

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For students of history or current nurses, UVA's Bjoring Center offers a wealth of historical resources into the lives of nurses during WWII.
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For students of history or current nurses, UVA's Bjoring Center offers a wealth of historical resources into the lives of nurses during WWII.

When you think of heroic moments in the Second World War, you probably think of Iwo Jima or the Invasion of Normandy. What many may not consider is that thousands of women were on duty nearby to care for the wounded.

"These nurses, I think, were patriotic and looking for adventure," says Arlene Keeling, Director of the University of Virginia's Bjoring Center. "It was a way, a respectable way, to leave home and help the World War II effort."

The Bjoring Center is a collection of books and letters, posters and photographs donated by nurses around the world. Camilla Wills, for example, served in France during World War One. Professor Barbara Brodie, associate director of the archive, is struck by how modest she was.

"Her letters home would say, 'I went to Paris today. Don't worry. We're doing fine.' And then her diary says, 'I took care of 144 dakin cases last night.' And that is a wound case that is extreme, where they had to drip dakin solution into the wounds," says Brodie. "She had been up all night and her notes are very short, because she was obviously very busy, so she'll say, 'Took charge of ward three - 160 patients, two orderlies, 144 dakin cases. Jack yelled nearly all night.'"

To a modern-day nurse, it sounds like a nightmare, but Brodie says army nurses were unlikely to complain.

"The most common refrain is, 'We did what we had to do. We used what we could find, and we did what we had to do,'" says Brodie.

Of course, some also packed lipstick and bathing suits for Pacific duty, and many married the officers they met while stationed overseas. Their happy stories are also told in letters and diaries stored in dozens of boxes at the nursing school. Scholars doing research come from around the world for a look, but Keeling says UVA is about to make their lives easier — putting old documents and photos online.

"Because they're fragile, if you look at that scrapbook it crumbles," says Brodie. "We want people to use it, but we don't want them to paw through it, so digitizing it, having the artifacts preserved in the backroom, is best."

In addition to sharing the stories of nurses in war, the collection tells tales of women who traveled on horseback through Appalachia, provided medical care following disasters, staffed inner city clinics and factories, traveled to Indian reservations or migrant labor camps.

There are also artifacts that document the history of medicine — nursing bags filled with syringes and castor oil, cans of ether, camphor, and patent medicines like Pinex.

"It has 17 percent alcohol," says Brodie. "Most of the home remedies, the things you'd see being sold, they were really wonderful, but you were drinking alcohol. I mean some could have been 50 percent alcohol. So clearly this would help. You would feel better, and you would probably sleep."

In addition to helping scholars research the past, Brodie says the archive gives current nursing students, like 29-year-old Sarah Craig, a whole new sense of themselves and their futures.

"It's quite inspiring to see how much work they really did do on all levels," says Craig. "History has kind of affirmed that they are that strong force in the community. I mean they very much are a central force in helping people get better and move on with their lives."

To convey that message, the Bjoring Center visits antique shops and keeps an eye on the obituary pages of newspapers — contacting families of deceased nurses who may wish to donate materials that will enrich and preserve the history of nursing.

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