June 11-24, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 11
Back Issues
Reunions Weekend 2004
Gilliam’s sense of place
Pay raises
Headlines @ U.Va.
Outstanding employees
Years of service
Doctor remembers Ronald Reagan
Klarman: WWII, not Brown, catalyst for Civil Rights Movement
Learning abroad: Becoming citizens of the world
Heritage Repertory Theatre now in 30th season
Reality TV wants you: Get political with Larry Sabato
Holidays for 2004
Attic find sheds light on life of WWI nurse
Attic find sheds light on life of WWI nurse
Arlene Keeling (left), director of the Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, and Jennifer Casavant, a doctoral nursing student
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Arlene Keeling (left), director of the Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, and Jennifer Casavant, a doctoral nursing student, show off their finds — artifacts of WWI nurse and U.Va. alumna Camilla Louise Wills.

By Dan Heuchert

Arlene Keeling and Jennifer Casavant were despairing of everfinding the collection.

They had been searching the Rugby Road home of Lucy Pegau for some time, seeking the belongings of Pegau’s aunt, the late Camilla Louise Wills. A U.Va. Nursing School graduate, Wills had served in France during World War I, and Pegau had offered the school’s Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry — which Keeling directs — a collection of Wills’ artifacts from that time.

If they could be found.

One day last September, Pegau pointed out one more dark corner in the attic, recalled Keeling, an associate nursing professor.

“I was beginning to give up hope, but then I saw the red crosses, and I knew we had found it.”

Inside the boxes, Keeling and Casavant, an acute-care nurse practitioner and first-year doctoral student, found more than 100 items — letters to and from France, a diary, and relics of the era, including a victory medal, a U.Va. pin, a winter scarf, a nursing cap. They also found a 1917 edition of “Songs of the Soldiers and Sailors,” a pamphlet containing patriotic songs and popular tunes of the day.

Artifacts are still trickling in, said Casavant; Pegau recently brought in Wills’ military-issue identification bracelet.

The letters and the diary contained the greatest scholarly interest for Keeling. “There is no one alive from World War I to interview about conditions, so this is very valuable,” she said.

She noted a reference to the widespread use of Dakin’s solution, a bleach-like liquid. In those days before antibiotics, Dakin’s was used (and still is, in some cases) to kill bacteria and irrigate wounds without damaging tissue, Casavant explained.

A grand adventure

World War I was the adventure of a lifetime for a Charlottesville girl.
Born Aug. 22, 1894, Wills was a student at the all-girls Piedmont Institute until it closed, then attended public schools until 1914. She next studied at the University of Virginia, where she earned a nursing degree in 1918 — just in time to join Base Hospital 41, a U.Va.-sponsored unit that was preparing to ship overseas to treat the wounded of The Great War.

The unit spent weeks in New York City preparing for deployment, and there her diary — written in sometimes hard-to-decipher shorthand and sentence fragments — picks up the story. Wills writes of French classes, movies, receptions, shopping trips, visits to the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island, and preparations for the journey to France. A typical note, from July 13, 1918: “Ans. rollcall + drilled in A.M. After lunch Canada + I took in Bronx Park. Enjoyed it — but were slightly sore and stiff from walking so much. Smith, Mabel [unknown] + I had a nice quiet time in our room.”

A week later, Wills was on board the S.S. Scotian for the Atlantic crossing. Initially seasick, she recovered quickly enough to note “singing with the boys” and “Playing checkers with Maj. Jones” — with the additional notation, “ + beat him.”

By mid-August, the journal entries were from France, and the tone had changed. Wills’ unit had set up a base hospital in an old Catholic school alongside the Cathedral of St. Denis, just outside Paris. The hospital treated convoys of wounded soldiers, many from the Germans’ bombing of Paris.

“Two air raids tonight,” she recorded on Aug. 15. “1st at 2 A.M. 2nd at 4 A.M. Ran to cellar both times. Would not let us go outside. Much bombing.”

For the next several weeks, the diary describes 11-hour shifts treating hundreds of patients, interspersed with occasional trips to Paris.
In contrast, her letters home to her “Aunt Mamie” — both of Wills’ parents were dead — were more upbeat. “She wrote about, ‘Things are great; things are fine,’” Casavant said, “like you would write to your parents so they wouldn’t worry.”

“She talked a lot about the boys she met and what they were doing for fun on the wards,” Keeling said.

Still, Wills sometimes ran afoul of military censors. Casavant displayed one of Wills’ letters that had a patient’s name carefully scissored out.
After 88 days — to Wills’ chagrin, two days short of the minimum stay required to earn a Cross of Military Service from the United Daughters of the Confederacy — the unit was shipped stateside.

A distinguished life

Wills returned to New York and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health education and biology from Columbia University. In the mid-1920s, she did some post-graduate study back at U.Va., where she was a member of the Thomas Jefferson Society, a rare honor for a woman of that era.

She went on to teach in New York, New Mexico, at Atlantic Christian College in North Carolina and at Stuart Hall in Staunton.

She retired to Charlottesville, but remained quite active, founding the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bird Club and serving as president of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She was also a 50-plus-year member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In 1991, at age 96, a bedridden but spirited Wills granted an oral history interview. “I think I’d better finish this obituary before I let you have it,” she told the interviewer, according to the transcript. “I’m 96, and I may die anytime. Although I don’t think so, but that’s the way things go. Past experience — other people die at that age.”

In fact, she lived another three years, until Aug. 13, 1994 — just nine days shy of her 100th birthday.

The hidden treasure trove she left behind will live on even longer. “This a real find,” Keeling said. “I don’t think there’s a collection like this in the United States.”


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