Thoroughly Modern Early 20th Century Nurses Meet the Old Civil War Surgeon

It wasn’t exactly the most daring escape, but on a Friday evening in November 1912 four young jailbirds charged with illegally hitching a ride on a freight train decided they weren’t waiting around for the trail.  Opting instead for “leg bail,” they carried bedsteads from cells and tied the frame together with strips of blankets.  This wobbly, makeshift ladder, the county’s bed linen being turned into ropes to serve as steps, was placed against the 30-foot stone wall surrounding the jail.  Three prisoners hurriedly scaled the barrier, sprinting to liberty.  But the improvised frame fell as the fourth one reached the top of the wall.

Hearing noise and painful cries in the exercise yard, Sheriff J. Will Perkins rushed outside and discovered that three inmates had broken for freedom.  But the battered inmate on the ground, the fourth detainee, urgently needed medical help so he sent for the jail physician, Dr. John H. Jamar.  The old Civil War surgeon assessed his patient, determining that a finger had been caught in the frame as the man tumbled downward.  Badly mangled, it was bleeding uncontrollably so he advised the sheriff that the finger had to be cuff off.

Dr. Jamar, the jail physician for nearly 35 years, received his initial medical education, apprenticing under Dr. H. H. Mitchell of Elkton.  He finished his training, earning a degree from the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania in March 1861.  Immediately, the surgeon’s services were needed so he entered government practice as an assistant surgeon, serving at one of the largest federal military hospitals during the Civil War, the Mower General Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Pa.

The once youthful practitioner had plenty of opportunities to gain practical knowledge about the human body and develop professional skills as each day the railroads delivered fresh train loads of severely injured troops.  Chloroform was standard issue by this time, so patients could be anesthetized.  When Dr. Jamar put the maimed men under the knife,  he used the tools of his practice, sharp hooks, handsaws, knives and forceps.  Widespread use of antiseptic (clean) surgical methods emerged a few years after the Civil War, and there was only a limited understanding of the risk of infection.  After the war, Dr. Jamar followed the profession until he died in July 1923.

union hospital 697Nearly fifty years later, Union Hospital opened in 1908 with one registered nurse, Maida Campbell, on the staff.  In 1912, the hospital established a nursing school and six bright, eager young ladies enrolled in the first class. These women were in their second year of a three year program when the accident occurred.

When Mary King answered the phone at the hospital that Friday, she heard the chief bark, “I intend to operate right away.”  So with a mixture of excitement and nervousness the pupils, under Miss Campbell’s supervision, hustled, preparing the surgical suite for the emergency arrival.  Everything had to be perfect as the chief intended to operate without delay.

Here was their chance to watch the Civil War surgeon operate on the patient, an experience they wouldn’t soon forget.  It was a time to see the lessons they studied in physiology, bacteriology, hygiene, anesthetics, surgical technique, sterilization, and operating room practices, applied by the famous old  physician, the chief of the staff.

Soon the aging surgeon marched through the door, along with the sheriff and the emergency case.  Dr. Morrison joined them, preparing to administer ether.  And then the doctor, who had trained in war, learning about battlefield medicine, came forth with pride, preparing to do wonders while the audience sighted.  “But who was scared.”

What the girls saw made a lasting impression as the doctor amputated the finger.  It inspired one of them, Stella Graves, to pen a poem, “Operation of 1865-1912.” In the poetic, eyewitness account, she describes the procedure and expressed some of her feelings, as the modern, early 20th century nurse observed technique from another era.

“Asepsis to him was a term unknown and his knowledge of cleanliness he must have left home,” she wrote.  “The instruments, once sterile were scattered about and when his glassed slipped out down on his noise, he pushed them back into place with bloody hands. . . .  When a thread adhered to his finger fast, he would lick it off and resume his task.  Once or twice, the nurses were sent below for some bandages (and maybe a germ or so).

Stella and three of her classmates graduated next year, in June 1914.  In October, she married Dr. Victor L. Glover of Inwood. WV and they honeymooned in Penn-Mar.   The certified nurse died three years later, at her home in Imrod, WV on the Nov. 14, 1917, from tuberculosis.

Stella’s original stained and wrinkled hand-written copy of the poem has survived, being passed down through time.  The estate of Dorothy Robinson donated many items to the Society, including the poem.

Alice Denver Trenholma

Alice Denver was a classmate of Stella’s. After graduating, she became a nurse in World War I. We have one more installment planned in this series, as we look into the story of the first four young nurses to graduate from Union Hospital. Source: John McDaniel.

First nursing class graduates.  L to R:  Mary King, Alice Denver, Stella Graves, Georgia Miller.  Source:  Union Hospital: Celebrating the first 100 years.

First nursing class graduates. L to R: Mary King, Alice Denver (photo above), Stella Graves, Georgia Miller. Source: Union Hospital: Celebrating the first 100 years.


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