by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
The Not-So-Mysterious Nurse Waters
Even though I lived in her house for five years and have loved its funky Victorian grandeur for a lot longer than that, I never knew much about Yssabella Waters, the Groton native who had willed her family home to Lawrence back in the 1930s. For that matter, I doubt that more than a couple of people now associated with LA have heard anything about her beyond the urban legends of a slightly batty old woman who never left her house and who died under mysterious circumstances.
Fortunately for history, one person in the Lawrence community knows a good deal about Yssabella Gertrude Waters: Sue McKenna, the capable and caring director of the Health Center. We fell into a dinnertime conversation about her a while ago, and a few days later I spent a fascinating hour or two with Sue as she talked about this remarkable woman and shared her collection of Waters-related documents with me for this column.
Yssabella, whom her family called Belle, was born in 1862 to Charles H. and Mary Jane Farnsworth Waters. Mr. Waters was a wealthy and successful businessman who was general manager and eventually president of the Clinton Wirecloth Company, at one time the largest manufacturer of woven-wire products in the world. His wife, Mary Jane, was descended from Asa Farnsworth Lawrence, who was preceptor (headmaster) of Lawrence Academy from 1824 to 1826.
Details of Belle’s childhood and youth are relatively few. She married a Fred Artemas Brooks in 1886, but within a few years they were living apart and they eventually divorced. Mr. Brooks ended his days, as far as we know, at an old men’s home in Worcester.
Belle was active in charitable work from an early age. As a young woman she spent several years teaching school in poor neighborhoods and doing church work in impoverished areas in Massachusetts, as well as in St. Louis, where she worked for the Unity and Ethical Society. In addition to visiting the poor she taught classes in sewing, household management and literature. Appalled by her pupils’ squalid living conditions and the lack of proper health care, she entered the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University in 1895, at the age of 33, by which time she and Mr. Brooks were no longer together. After graduation in 1897 she went to work at the non-profit Henry Street Settlement in New York City, which provided shelter and a cultural center for the very poor, mostly immigrants . She didn’t stay there long, however, for, as the Spanish-American War was ending, the Army sent out a call for nurses to deal with the burgeoning number of typhoid fever cases. Her Army assignments took her from Jacksonville, Florida, to Savannah, Georgia, where she was made superintendent of nurses, and thence to Havana, where she also served as superintendent. It’s interesting to note that in Miss Waters’ day, although contracted by the Army, nurses were not members of the military and as such received no recognition for their vital services. However, in August of 1898, the same month that the Spanish-American War ended, the Surgeon General established the Nurse Corps Division to coordinate nursing efforts—the first step towards the founding of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
After the war, Yssabella (I suspect she would have outgrown “Belle” at this point) returned to New York and Henry Street, where she would serve without pay for 22 years. In 1902, Settlement founder Lillian Wald asked her to join colleague Lina Rogers to become the second school nurse in New York City. As Sue McKenna explained it, “They covered four schools—working in the schools in the mornings and visiting homes in the afternoons. This practice not only excluded sick children from school, thereby preventing the spread of disease; it also cut down on absenteeism by getting well kids back to school. The two were so successful in this undertaking that the protocols they developed were adopted by the Board of Health and by 1903, twenty-five nurses were covering 100 schools!” A few years into her Henry Street career, Belle co-founded the National Organization of Public Health Nurses , helping to formalize and gain recognition for this new branch of her profession. In 1909 she wrote “Visiting Nursing in the United States,” the first nationwide directory of nursing organizations.
Yssabella Waters and her colleagues were pioneers, the first nurses to work as independent practitioners, moving from hospital-based practice directed by doctors to caring for the sick in their own homes and schools—an outgrowth of the theories developed by Florence Nightingale that, as Sue puts it, “focused on a more holistic view of health care.” In a very real sense, it is because of the Henry Street nurses that schools like Lawrence have full-time nurses on staff.
Retiring to her home in Groton in 1921, Miss Waters became active in the Unitarian Church next to campus and did a great deal of work at the Groton Historical Society with its founder, Georgianna Boutwell, whose historic family home on Main Street still houses the Society’s headquarters. Respected and well thought-of in town, she died at home in 1938, leaving her papers and much of her personal property to the Historical Society. Unfortunately, little of her legacy remains there, for reasons unknown.
Yssabella Waters was buried in the Farnsworth family plot at the Groton cemetery, where, each Memorial Day, a flag is placed on her grave along with the other veterans’. “At last,” smiles Sue McKenna, “she has some recognition.”
1. The Settlement, which “opens doors of opportunity to enrich lives and enhance human progress..."
2. The term “public health nursing” was first coined by Lillian Wald.
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