Women’s History Month: Ella Currie McKay

[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)

Farmer’s Daughter

Ella McKay, RN, with a Confederate veteran at the Old Soldiers Home in Raleigh, North Carolina, ca. 1917

Ella McKay, RN, with a Confederate veteran at the Old Soldiers Home in Raleigh, North Carolina, ca. 1917. From PC.2144, State Archives of North Carolina

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.

Ella McKay Pellegrini, RN, U.S. Army, Christmas 1918. From PC.2144, State Archives of North Carolina

Ella McKay Pellegrini, RN, U.S. Army, Christmas 1918. From PC.2144, State Archives of North Carolina

In later years, Ella described her experiences at Camp Meade and the relentless stresses on the hospital and staff. While the numbers of ill-fated soldiers increased daily, the staff was diminished by illness and death. Once during the onslaught, with so many nurses sick in their own ward, and while still recovering from her own bout of flu, Ella worked a span of three straight shifts. Admonished by the doctors to return to her room to “rest before you die,” she gave in. She returned to her room (nurses at that time lived on the premises) and learned that her roommate had died of the disease. Ella cited additional pressures on the institution, with the following as examples: patients were both military and civilian; the sick arrived at the hospital constantly; halls were full of the dead and dying; and wards were set up on the hospital’s verandas outside, exposed to the elements. She described patients bleeding from noses and mouths, lost in delirium, some with no identification. Many pleaded through bloodshot eyes and blackened lips to inform their families about their impending deaths.

Ella’s family was close-knit; and their warm letters to each other during the war were frequent and welcome. Her sister, Mamie, had studied nursing at James Walker Memorial in Wilmington nearly ten years before Ella’s own training at Whitehead-Stokes, and was her frequent and understanding correspondent. Ella’s mother wrote to her that some 600 deaths had been reported in the nearby town of Rowland in Robeson County. The circumstances posed a danger for all, a fact well-expressed in the following transcription of Ella’s own words—in one of her many letters to Mamie:

“Camp Meade [Maryland]
Saturday Oct. 5 – ’18

Dear Mamie,

I received your letter a few minutes ago and also one from Nannie yesterday. I started to write Nannie last night but was so tired and I didn’t get off duty until 8:30 when I was supposed to get off at 7:00 but we were so busy yesterday it was impossible. Don’t be uneasy about me as I think I am going to get on alright. I am not well but I feel better than I did. Only I have no appetite in the world. I think I haven’t eaten as much as a square meal altogether in over a week. And sometimes I never go to the table.

O, this is hell here now. That is just the only thing that will express it. We have ten thousand patients I hear and O, they are dying by the dozens every day. We had two to die on our ward this morning and there are several more who won’t be there two days from now. And just think we have 64 patients on our ward and how many wards there are and three or four & even more die every day in every ward. You can’t imagine how it is unless you could see it. One of the nurses died last night. A Miss Perkins from Morganton N.C. she came the day after I did and we worked on the same ward for almost a week. Then they put her on night duty and she was on just one night when she got sick. But she got better and I think went back on duty. And she had only been in the infirmary three days. She developed pneumonia from influenza. I went over to the ward that night where the sick nurses are with another nurse and I asked the head nurse on the hall if I could see Miss Perkins, so she let me go in and look at her. They had moved her in a little room to herself and had a nurse sitting with her. She was almost gone then. Her lips & eyes were almost black. And that is the way they all get for a day or two before they die. She was dead in less than two hours after I was there. I liked her so much and she knew lots of people I did. She took her training at Dr. Long’s in Statesville and I really felt at home when I could get with her. Two or three other nurses are real sick and there are over 30 in the infirmary. Well you could not be surprised at their being sick if you knew what we had to go thru with. But you feel so sorry for the poor boys you just can’t keep from going on trying to do things for their comfort when you should be in bed. And they are so pitiful. They all expect to die when they come to the base hospital and there are not many far wrong. I don’t see how Germany, or the war rather, could be any worse than this. They curse Germany and it is really pitiful to hear them. One of the fellows who died this morning told me yesterday that he was going to die and if he could only see his mother & sister before. It is heart rending to hear them. The Dr’s have never been able to find a cure yet. Yes you had better make Sam take good care of himself and don’t let him go to school until he is entirely over it.

I am glad you got my things for I know I am too thinly clad for this place. My head is so stopped up I can hardly hear a word and my eyes are bloodshot. I have to pull them apart about a dozen times every night.

Well Mamie I will have to stop as I haven’t very much longer off duty and I must rest a little as my back feels as if it is coming in two.

Am returning Pete’s letter was glad to hear from him and to know he is well. Sorry Willie is sick and Diane is dead.

You all take care of yourselves and let me hear how Sam is.

Think I will soon be O.K.

Love to all, Your Sister Ella”

Ella Currie McKay (1887–1974) did survive, living to the age of 86. During the 1920s and 1930s she was a private duty nurse, then worked in the office of Dr. Charles Johnson, Red Springs, until retirement. She married, had children, and was the matriarch and mentor of many descendants.