Emily Elizabeth Parsons (1824 – 1880)
Civil War Nurse and later Founder of Mount Auburn Hospital, Emily Elizabeth Parsons was born March 8, 1824 in Taunton, Massachusetts. Emily’s father, author and lawyer Theophilus Parsons II was Dane Professor of Law at Harvard Law School; and her grandfather, Theophilus Parsons, Sr. was Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Although she was born to a family of much wealth and renown, at age 37 Parsons insisted upon leaving home to volunteer as a nurse in the American Civil War.
Despite her father’s objections, she gained admittance to the Massachusetts General Hospital as a student nurse, having been recommended by Dr. Jeffries Wyman (#133 Willow Avenue) of Cambridge. 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).
Emily Parsons may not have appeared as a likely candidate for becoming a Civil War nurse – she had several physical handicaps including partial hearing loss, blindness in one eye, and an injured ankle, but determined to help others she became a nurse nonetheless.
In October 1862, Parsons began work at the Fort Schuyler Hospital on Long Island Sound near New York City. She found the hospital to be understaffed and in a poor state of cleanliness, so she set to work immediately to clean up the ward of which she had charge. Within a week, the head surgeon remarked that her ward was “the nicest looking one in the whole hospital.” In her letters, Parsons referred to the patients in her care as her “children;” appropriately, her position was officially that of ward matron. Although she was happy with her work, her health suffered from poor conditions and long hours, and she was forced to leave after two months.
Parsons went to recuperate at the home of a friend in New York City, having every intention of returning to duty. There she made the acquaintance of Jessie Benton Fremont, who was recruiting nurses for a Western Sanitary Commission hospital in St. Louis. Parsons agreed to go immediately to St. Louis, believing that a change in climate would improve her health. Her father was not so certain, and worried that she would strain herself further. Parsons had her heart set, however, and could see no other course of action – she departed not yet knowing that her father had, as she had hoped, granted his permission.
In January of 1863 Parsons began nursing at Lawson Hospital, and within three weeks was appointed to a more senior position as head nurse of a hospital boat called the City of Alton. The boat traveled down the Mississippi River to Vicksburg and took on 400 sick and wounded soldiers to take them to Memphis hospitals. During the trip Emily contracted malaria, and upon returning to St. Louis required several weeks to recover. She hated being kept from her duty, and 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.
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 continued, however, and before Parsons’ death in 1880, the continuation of the hospital was assured. A tract of land on the Charles River was purchased, a new building was completed in 1884, and the Cambridge Hospital (later renamed Mount Auburn Hospital) was re-opened on a permanent basis in 1886.
Emily Parsons is buried in Lot #608 on Greenbrier Path at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week.
Portrait of Emily Elizabeth Parsons from Woman’s work in the civil war: a record of heroism, patriotism and patience, published 1867, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons