Attic find sheds light on
life of WWI nurse
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
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
Keeling and Jennifer Casavant were despairing of everfinding
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.
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
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,
A grand adventure
World War I was the adventure of a lifetime for a Charlottesville
Born Aug. 22, 1894, Wills was a student at the all-girls
Piedmont Institute until it closed, then attended public
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
note “singing with the
boys” and “Playing checkers with Maj. Jones” — with the
additional notation, “ + beat him.”
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.
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.”
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
at Stuart Hall
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
was also a
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.”