Passport Photos Used to Identify World War I Nurses

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CCHS Photo Archives hosts a guest blogger, Claire Crosman Wilson.  Visiting our library to view materials donated by her cousins, George and Garrett Forsythe, Claire was captivated by a photograph of Alice Garrett as part of a naval nursing unit sent to serve in Brest, France during World War I.  How Claire uncovered the history of the unit and the tools she used to work on identifying these intrepid women is truly ingenious!


The original photograph is 16 x 20, hence I am posting here a full copy of the image as well as three detail views.

Unit #5 Naval Base Hospital, Methodist Unit, Philadelphia, PA, 20 September 1917. Photo by Gilbert & Bacon. Donors: George and Garrett Forsythe.

Alice M. Garrett is pictured in the center of the middle row.

 detail, left 

  detail, middle 

 Detail, left 

Photograph of Methodist Hospital Unit 5 Nurses in World War I 

by Claire Crosman Wilson 

On September 20th of 1917, 40 nurses gathered for a group photo in their new Naval Nurse uniforms in preparation for traveling to France to staff Navy Base Hospital Unit 5. If they knew where in France they were going, they were not to tell anyone, although it is highly unlikely that any of them knew. On their passport applications they stated that they were “Graduate Nurses” heading to Methodist Hospital Naval Base Unit 5.  Destination France, Port of: ...“Information Withheld.”  Leaving from... “Information Withheld” - except for one nurse, who apparently filled in the information, “Leaving from: Port of New York.”  Oh dear. (They were cautioned in very strict terms not to give specifics in letters home, and in fact, to leave letters at their hospital, so that the letters could be posted 2 weeks after their departure.)

The uniform included the remarkable hat, which showed, in many cases, something of the personality of the woman who wore it - sitting squarely, or with a jaunty slant. One hopes that putting the jacket on did not involve buttoning all of the many buttons down the front. We may think of the wool uniform and full length skirt as a burden to wear onboard ship and into a war zone, but it is described as “protection,” not just from the elements, by a 1914 Red Cross article in the American Journal of Nursing about preparing for service as a Red Cross Nurse.  “As a matter of protection nurses will be expected to wear their uniform on shipboard, and so far as can be determined at all other times while serving under the Red Cross in Europe.” However, the women in the Methodist Hospital unit were in naval uniforms by this time, not in Red Cross uniforms, as lines began to form between the Military reserve personnel and the Red Cross personnel.     

 In anticipation of the declaration of war, the Red Cross had been organizing hospitals for America’s involvement in the ongoing brutal war in France. The military health care during the Spanish American War was abysmal, and the Red Cross had put great planning for medical units in this conflict. The idea was to bring fully trained units - teams of nurses, surgeons, orderlies, anesthetists, dietitians, all knowing each other’s procedures, having the same standards of sanitation, being familiar with the same techniques, from hospitals all over the United States. The US hospital staff units, arrived in France and hit the ground running. This approach was apparently a tremendous success, and the medical units in World War I started out way ahead of the army, which had trouble training, equipping and organizing soldiers in the first year of the war.     

 Methodist Episcopal Hospital in Philadelphia was one of many medical establishments who answered the call of the Red Cross. Dr. LeConte, who would be Chief of the Medical and Surgical Staff, had served in the Navy during the Spanish American War, and had experience in wartime medicine. He was also assigned to be a liaison with local French authorities. He was accompanied by an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, and a Dentist. The nursing staff had, as its core, 26 graduate nurses from the Methodist Hospital staff, headed, by Alice M. Garrett, Directoress of Nurses. Her assistant would be Mary Young and the Nurse Anesthetist was Faye Fulton. The nurses ranged in age from new graduates in their 20s to seasoned nurses in their 40s. (The youngest 22, and the oldest 48 years old.) To fill out the unit, there were 5 nurses from Germantown Hospital, 4 from Hahnemann, 2 from the Polyclinic, and 1 each from Frankford, Presbyterian, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and the German Hospital (now Lankenau). Some of these hospitals were developing their own teams of nurses and doctors, although the groups left the US at different times.  (The team from Pennsylvania Hospital became Army Base Hospital No. 10 and had sailed back in May soon after the US entered the war.)     

 Faye Fulton had already served in 1914 with the Red Cross, aboard a Red Cross Hospital Mercy Ship, as had Agnes Jacobs and several other nurses. When she returned from France in 1919, Faye Fulton was one of 2 Nurse Anesthetists in the U.S. and set up the anesthesiology department of Methodist Hospital. Faye had a career at Methodist Hospital that spanned 70 years, including the years of service that she gave to the Red Cross and Navy.

Alice Garrett was 47 years old, a Quaker, and Directoress of Nurses and Superintendent of the Nurses Hospital Training School of Methodist Episcopal Hospital. The Society of Friends, from its beginning in the 1600s made education, leadership and service, expectations of Quaker women, and there were more than the average numbers of Quaker women who were college graduates, and among the leadership of reform societies and service organizations. Alice and her sister Anna had graduated from the nursing program at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1897 and 1896. Anna was Superintendent of Nurses at Frankfort Hospital and spent 1917-1919 as Chief Nurse at Camp Dodge Army training camp in Iowa.  They were both unmarried as were many nurses. (Their sister Abbie Garrett married in 1905 and did not continue in nursing.)  Professional nursing developed new standards in the late 1800s, and Graduate Nurses proudly stated that qualification on their documents - they were well educated in their field.  

Each of the participating hospitals was charged with raising the money for equipment and supplies to start a 500 bed hospital.  Individual Methodists and churches around the Philadelphia area gave money; The Red Cross raised money; and Methodist Episcopal Hospital put some of its own budget toward purchase of equipment, so that when the nurses boarded the British ship SS St. Louis in October, the unit had most of what it needed. The need would grow, of course, since at the height of their admissions, the base hospitals faced not only war-related medical needs, but the influenza epidemic, and Base Unit 5 grew to be an 800 bed facility, with contagious patients in tents around the hospital.

 After gathering for the group photo in their Navy nurse’s uniforms, the women worked on preparing to go abroad and gathering their supplies. They took special training at the Philadelphia Naval Base in treating injuries and conditions that they would not have seen in a civilian hospital. Most of their passport applications went in on October 12, 1917, and appear in the passport book in sequential groups of a half dozen together, interspersed with applications for folks going to Bermuda, or traveling on business. Many of the nurses did not have birth certificates and attached a notarized statement from a relative attesting to their birth. These statements are full of poignant information - about the death of a parent, who could not appear to give a statement, the name of the doctor who attended the birth and the home address where the birth took place. Pearl Gaupp must have had some nervous moments wondering if the affidavit that she presented declaring her German father’s naturalization papers were lost would suffice. Passport photos are attached, some of which are, thankfully, clear enough to help identify individual nurses in the group photo, though many of them are absolutely terrible and of no use.

 The November issue of The American Journal of Nursing lists all of the Methodist Hospital Unit 5 women.  Three of the group did not go to France. Two were not called to serve, and Mary Lawlor’s veteran records show that she served at Base Hospital Camp Dix New Jersey.

 In the autumn of 1917, Germany stepped up submarine attacks on American ships.  American ships were traveling in convoys to increase safety, but it was on everyone’s mind and secrecy was important. The danger of the ship not making it across the Atlantic was very real. The US Military teams of doctors and nurses seem to all have been split up into two group, since all of the accounts relate the various Hospital Units arriving in France in several stages. In this case, the officers and enlisted men and the equipment went on the Henderson and some of the doctors and all the nurses sailed on the SS St. Louis. However, nothing is said of the two teams traveling on different ships in case of a ship being attacked on the way. The doctors and administrators seem to have arrived first and begun to set up and negotiate housing for the staff.  In the case of Naval Base Unit 5, this part of the process did not go smoothly.  

 The hospital was to be in the major port city of Brest that would be, in World War I, the place where a majority of ships, troops, and equipment arrived and wounded departed for home.  There were few available and suitable buildings in Brest, and the first building that was decided upon was still in use by a convent.  After the kitchen renovations had been started, and nurse’s quarters were prepared, it became clear that the convent was not going to cede the building as had been negotiated. The search for another building began, precious time slipped away. An agreement for use of an abandoned convent was made and the work began all over.  This building had the advantage of not being in current use, so there was no difficulty there, but it was little more than a shell, surrounded by a courtyard and wall, with no plumbing, no electricity, and no sewer line.    

 William Brown, Supply Officer wrote half a century later of the ingenuity and skill and determination that turned an antique shell of a building into a modern hospital with sterile operating room, wards, x-ray department, laundry and kitchen facilities with water, heat and light. For example, they discovered that one of the cooks had been an electrical contractor in civilian life, but on the day that he enlisted, “they were only taking cooks.” Brown tells a story of a group of German POWs who were assigned to Hospital Unit 5 for labor, and arrived on Thanksgiving. They were shown into the mess, and a full American Thanksgiving dinner put before them.  They thought at first that they were being taunted, but after they had eaten the meal of their lives, they were the most dedicated of workers.  

 The nurses went right to work before the hospital was ready, with the arrival of a convoy of American ships on November 12, with hundreds of troops arriving with measles, mumps, and the early form of influenza - although not the flu that was to come in 1918. Soon Naval Hospital Unit 5 in Brest was treating gas attack victims, trauma of the most terrible kind, all that the war brought to the hospital, in addition to the ships arriving with sailors to be treated for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.

 No one in the US services was to give information to their relatives about where they were located, or specifics of what they were doing.  Their letters were censored with scissors, so it was best to write on one side of a page, lest the censor take out a comment from the other side of the offending entry. The letters were full of “somewhere” and “another place”. We can understand that relatives and home town folks were anxious for any news, and for a small town paper so used to reporting every social engagement or visit from distant relatives in the social column not to have information underscores the seriousness of the censor’s job. On November 23 of 1917 an article appeared in the Harrisburg Telegraph of the safe arrival of 2 of the Methodist Hospital women “Somewhere” in France. Pearl Gaupp and Elsie Mackie are pictured in their Navy uniforms in an article announcing that they had written to a classmate from their nursing program to say that they were safe. Headline: “Young Women Well Known Here Announce Safe Arrival in France”, sounding like a society column. (Likely the photo was taken on the same day as the group photo in September.)  

 The most wonderful news story in the Harrisburg Telegraph was of Beulah Armor also “Somewhere” writing home that she looked out her window to see her brother walking down the street. Headline: “Girl and Brother Meet in France”  “Miss Beulah Armor of Gettysburg Sees Sergt. Howard Armor for 15 Minutes.”   

 Some of the nurses stand out in reports written after the war, detailing the experiences of surgical teams sent near the front to perform surgery on patients too unstable to transport and with injuries needing surgery in the most difficult of circumstances. Faye Fulton, anesthetist, and nurses Alice Hurst, and Caroline Thompson were dispatched with a surgical team in July of 1918 traveling by train and truck. The narrative of the mission is a harrowing report of working nearly round the clock at field hospitals. At one point the lights went out and they had to finish the operation by flashlight.  Occasionally they were under fire. One of the nurses wrote that they sheltered for a night in a cellar, and envied the surgeons, because it seemed to them that if a shell hit, they would surely be buried in the basement whereas the doctors who dug “graves” under their cots for shelter to stay by the patients had a chance of getting out.

 Nurse Mildred Hunsinger was herself admitted to the very hospital where she was a nurse, according to the naval admission book, for a “sprained ankle.”  It is hard to know what to make of the entry showing that she was in Naval Base Hospital Unit 5 as a patient for a sprained ankle from March 20, 1918 until April 17. Even for a nurse expected to always be on her feet that seems like a long time to be hospitalized for a sprain.

 When the armistice was signed, the hospital continued in service for a time. An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger heralded the return of Dr. LeConte and four other Methodist Hospital doctors, having been replaced by regular Navy doctors. The article noted that the nurses led by Alice Garrett were still in Brest, still serving at the hospital. In the months from November 1918 until spring of 1919 the women were reassigned to Navy Hospitals in Brooklyn and Philadelphia until their demobilization. Several Nurses served with the Red Cross after the war. Alice Garrett and Faye Fulton returned to Methodist Episcopal Hospital on Broad and Wolf St., where Faye Fulton, only one of two Nurse Anesthetists set up the Anesthesiology department and Alice Garrett was Directoress of Nursing until her retirement ten years later.

 This intense experience formed a bond among the women, many of whom continued to meet in the Helen Fairchild Nurses Post, the Post of the American Legion in Philadelphia named for a nurse from Pennsylvania Hospital who was exposed to mustard gas during combat nursing which contributed to her death shortly after the end of the war.         

The Research

When I first saw the September 20, 1917 photo of the group of nurses, I knew little about the subject, and only knew that the woman in the center was my grandmother’s Aunt Alice, and that my grandmother’s aunties were nurses.  My cousin had donated the photo to the Chester County Historical Society.  I bought reproductions as well as the photo of Alice and her two sisters in their white nursing uniforms. The CCHS was planning to use the group photo in a display about women in WWI.

 It seemed a terrible shame that we did not know who the other women in the photo were, and since the caption indicated that they were a Naval Unit, it should be possible to find out something through the Navy. The “Methodist” part was curious - how did that have to do with the Navy? In addition to that, I was curious about Aunt Alice, because she came from an Orthodox Quaker family, with members who served with American Friends Service Committee in World War I and so, joining the Navy was an interesting choice. My grandfather on the other side of the family enlisted in the Army Engineers because he knew that he was going to be drafted, and by enlisting he was able to put himself in a non-combatant role.

 There was actually a lot of information on the photograph itself.

On the front of the photo was written:

“Unit No. 5 Naval Base Hospital, Sept 20, 1917, Phila PA.”
The caption on the reverse side of photo:
“Alice M. Garrett center of photograph [middle row] daughter of Jesse H. & Susan Cope Garrett  Chief Nurse of Methodist Hospital Unit  Navy Hospital #5, World War I”
A Label on the back said:
“Naval Hospital #5, Methodist Unit served at Brest, France World War I.”

 I went straight to Google and fairly quickly found the list of the nurses in Navy Unit 5 in the American Journal of Nursing 1917 P. 252 Vol. 18, No. 3, Dec., 1917, and periodical called: The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, Volumes 58-59 page 362, of 1917. It was a whole list! The wonderful names immediately made me curious: Minerva Strobel, Vida Peckins, Ida May Burket, Ada May Harding, Elsie Mae Mackey, Elsie Jefford, Effie Watters, Beulah Armor, Halberta Grosh… I got to know them one by one. Could I find out which nurse was which in the photo?

 I began to look for information about Naval Base Hospital Unit 5, Methodist Hospital in 1917 Philadelphia, Brest France, and about nursing in World War I. I found a website, ( with photos of the Unit 5 Hospital and some sailors, some patients and at least one nurse that I recognized.  

 The next step was to use the resources of the Delaware County Library System, to access old newspapers.  If they were all Jane Smith and Betty Jones, I would never have found most of them, but with their wonderful names, I started to find the first newspaper photos, and some personal stories that began to bring Beulah Armor, and Pearl Gaupp to life. Pearl and Vida Pickens hung an American flag out their bedroom window when they heard a group of soldiers waiting for a train across the street. The men were singing, and when they saw the nurses’ flag in their window, they began to cheer.  The local paper printed the account of the incident in: The Gettysburg Times (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Monday, March 25, 1918.   

 I was puzzled by a photo of Lillian Wilsey in the Philadelphia Evening Ledger on April 5, 1918 at a fundraiser for Frankford Hospital. Was the photo taken before she left, or did she return home in the middle of the war?

 I found a few obituaries, (Elizabeth K. Kirk died in 1920 of complications of an operation, so soon after the war!) That started me thinking about which I have used for genealogy research. Quite a few of the women had a flag, or mention of their service in WWI on their gravestones. Katharine Mensh (Find A Grave Memorial# 124463058) had a flag and “Nurse US Naval Base Hospital 5” along with her birth and death dates on her headstone.

 From some of this research, I began to understand that many of these women were unmarried for their whole lives, professional women, they were well educated, independent, and respected. The ones who married generally left nursing. In the early part of the 20th century, a married woman might not continue to work, but a married woman certainly would not continue to be a nurse. (However, according to her passport, Effie Watters, 34, became a widow in 1912.) And Nursing was a profession increasingly professional. Searching the 1900 - 1930 Nursing Journals online, I found some of their names as participants in Medical Conferences - or presenting at the conferences - or, on committees appointed to oversee some aspect of the profession. I wondered if perhaps no one was researching these brave women because they chose to be childless and no one’s ancestor.

 Any time I made a “major find” of what I now thought of as “my nurses” I emailed Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist at Chester County Historical Society. She was very encouraging and always had a comment that made me think of a new direction that I could head.  Pretty soon I came back to the Historical Society, and with her help, located the narrative by the Naval Supply Officer, William Brown. He wrote this in the 1960s, about his experience with Base Hospital 5. Also there was more information about Alice M. Garrett, my relative.  My cousins had donated a number of family photos and papers, in an effort to preserve them, and I came along soon after looking for that very information. I was grateful to my cousins and the Historical Society in its mission to protect and catalogue these documents for research.    

 I had hoped to find something that documented that my grandfather on my mother’s side (Alice was on my Father’s side) was actually treated at the hospital where my father’s great aunt Alice was Chief Nurse. He was in the convoy of ships that arrived in November 12, and he either arrived with the measles, or was hospitalized as soon as they disembarked. His Company went right from Brest to St Nazaire, so I can’t prove that he didn’t travel with them to St. Nazaire and enter the Army hospital there. He wrote in his letters home that he was so well cared for and recovered in time to eat a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner the day of his release, but he, of course was “somewhere”. Several times I found indications that it would certainly have been possible that he was treated in Brest, but nothing to prove it.  

 In order to get organized, since this was becoming a real project, with 40 nurses, WWI history, Naval Base Hospitals, the Red Cross, the Influenza Epidemic to keep track of, I started uploading photos, and snippets to Google Drive, and started a spreadsheet to keep track of what kind of information I had on each nurse.  I was determined to “find” every one of the nurses. An article, a record, a mention in a Nursing Journal, a headstone -  I needed to find out who they were, where they came from and what happened to them.  Gradually, I had something on half of the nurses, but a few stood out and were mentioned numerous places.  

 The group photo can be found on Instagram from a post by the American History Museum!  It seems that four of the nurses donated the photo and one of their uniforms, and the museum posted about the four nurses: Beulah Armor, Faye Fulton, Halberta Grosh, and Bertha Hamer.

I kept finding Faye Fulton, who was particularly interesting. She had served on the Red Cross Mercy Ship in 1914 at the beginning of the European conflict. She was one of the surgical team dispatched to the Field Hospitals from Unit 5. She served with the Red Cross again after the War.  For over 70 years she was associated with Methodist Hospital.  

 I read one of the most interesting items of the research in a 1914 article in the American Journal of Nursing, about how the nurses were to prepare to serve in the Red Cross, including a list of what to pack. The items listed underscore what travel was like for women in the early 1900s. In addition to the admonition that nurses should wear their uniforms at all times for protection, the following list was included:

 "Plain traveling suit with two or three shirtwaists; rubbers, raincoat and umbrella; black high shoes, or four-eyelet ties should be worn, with low heels and broad soles; warm underwear, not more than four suits; three colored cotton petticoats; four corset covers, preferably cotton crepe; three or four nightgowns, preferably outing-flannel; warm dressing gown and bedroom slippers; one small bath towel and two hand towels; extra pair of corsets; extra pair of shoes; roll of absorbent gauze and roll of absorbent cotton from which sanitary napkins may be made; box of foot powder; cake of Dr. Johnson's foot soap; box of small round corn plasters or a small roll of adhesive plaster from which corn plaster may be cut; cold cream; simple cathartic, such as cascara; individual drinking cup; hypodermic set; two thermometers (clinical); bandage scissors."

 The Methodist Episcopal Hospital in Philadelphia became part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in 1996 and the Methodist Nursing School graduated its last class in 2006. On the Jefferson site the history of Unit 5 included note of Alice Garrett’s role and Faye Fulton’s activities in the Red Cross, and that she set up the Anesthesiology department at Methodist. There is also a Methodist Hospital Site that mentions this history, and includes a tiny color photo of Faye Fulton.

 In 1934, Veterans were able to apply for compensation (no doubt as part of the economic stimulation the government did to alleviate poverty during the Great Depression. The payments appear to have been based on number of months served, and since most of the nurses served between 17 and 20 months, they received $10 per month for 17 - 20 months in 1934. The applications also gave the address where the veteran was living in 1934, (and married name if she had married: Elsie Mae Mackey Hunter.)

 I had set the project aside for the summer, since we were away on trips and working on other projects, and at Labor Day, my husband and I decided to re-join after about 10 years. When I used the search function on Ancestry, I began finding some of the nurses Passport Applications.  These were extremely interesting, as they had information about the nurse, date and place of birth, and parents’ names.  Most specified that they were “Graduate Nurses” and were traveling to France in Methodist Hospital Unit 5 in service of the US Navy, or with the Red Cross. Some did not have a birth certificate and had a notarized affidavit from a relative attesting to their birth. Most filled out the section of where to send the completed passport, saying ℅ Alice M. Garrett, Methodist Hospital, Broad and Wolf Streets, Philadelphia.

 Suddenly I made a discovery, that if I hit the left arrow, or the right arrow, I would find another nurse’s application before or after the one that I had searched on! Some indicated that due to the condition of the page, the record was not indexed (so that if you “searched” on that woman’s name, the passport application would not be found, but if you found the section for Oct 12, and knew the names of the nurses to look for, you could just make them out), and then turn the page, and AHA! - the photo of the nurse.  Of course being passport photos, many of them are terrible, but many are clear and distinct enough to recognize the nurse.  Suddenly, there was hope of identifying the individual nurses in the September 20th photo. I made a chart of the photo and started making guesses as to which ones match. Some I feel pretty certain of, some I have two candidates for a match. I would need Facial Recognition software to do more, but I enjoy trying to guess, and some of them are clearly the right person. And many of them I feel I know by now!   

Thank you Claire for sharing your story.  Please send comments to: