[This blog post was written by Stephen C. Edgerton, who donated the collection to Private Collections, Special Collections Section, and is volunteering under the supervision of Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist.]
In Recognition of Women’s History Month (March 2017): Focus on Researching Women in History, from the McKay, McPherson, and McNeill Private Papers (PC.2144)
Ella Currie McKay was born in 1888, the daughter of a progressive, North Carolina farmer with 75 acres of sandy, arable land in Robeson County. A highly resourceful man, her father managed to send four of his nine children—two girls and two boys—to college. Three of them became medical professionals—two doctors and one registered nurse. Ella was that nurse.
At age twenty-four in 1911, Ella graduated from Philadelphus High School. At Red Springs, a mile away, she attended and graduated from Flora MacDonald College for women, and in time, Whitehead-Stokes Sanatorium Nursing School in Salisbury, North Carolina. Her professional nursing career began in May of 1917 at the Confederate Soldiers Home in Raleigh. Her many letters to her family at this time reveal thoughts about her two brothers, doctors serving in the war, and about whether she should join in the fight.
“Oh, this is hell here now”
Just prior to the end of World War I, in September of 1918, Ella joined the U.S. Army as a Red Cross nurse. Her first posting was at the military hospital at Camp Meade, Maryland, nursing the wounded and afflicted soldiers. Within ten days she contracted Spanish Influenza. Too ill to work, she was kept isolated from her patients and others for weeks. Her eyes remained “glued shut,” she said, and her back ached as if it would break. But her symptoms were more merciful than those suffered by the soldiers she encountered once she again took up their care. She surely was now squarely on the front lines of the flu epidemic of 1918, estimated today to have killed more people worldwide in the short time it raged than all those who died in the four years of the First World War.