Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984) Part III

In March 1926, the great Albanian adventure began.  Much of the information about this period comes from William Holtz’s biography of Rose Wilder Lane ‘The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane’.  A big question for modern readers is probably “why go back to Albania of all places?”  Holtz explains the motivation for the trip this way:  “[t]he initial European experience had in fact alienated them from their homeland, which in the boom years of the 1920s struck them as hectic, provincial and crassly commercial. Albania with its Mediterranean climate and its climate and its people still unspoiled by modern ways, began to glimmer in their imaginations as a Shangri-la.”

albania about 1923. Sandal Sellers
Sandal Sellers in Albania, about 1923. Credit:  The Opinga boy, Library of Congress

Helen and Rose sailed on the S.S. Ausonia.  On arrival in France they stayed in Rose’s former Paris apartment. They enrolled immediately in the Berlitz School for study in French, Italian, German, and Russian.  They planned to learn more languages  before they realized  they had  taken on too much!

The summer of 1926 was a somewhat dangerous time to be an American in France on account of French resentment about war debt repayment: Helen was attacked in a taxi on Bastille Day.  The same summer when Helen and Rose bought a car, a model T Ford that they called Zenobia, after a Bedouin Queen. Helen later published a comic account of the bureaucratic steps involved in registering the car. Once the registration was accomplished, Helen and Rose set off with Yvonne, their reluctant French maid, for the two week journey to Albania. The route took them via Monte Carlo and Italy and by sea from Bari.

In Albania, the living costs were cheap.  Helen and Rose planned to gain their living as writers, sending their work to the US for publication. But regular dividends from their George Q. Palmer investments with helped subsidize their lifestyle. They thought they would build a house (and in fact Rose drew up elaborate plans),  but at first they rented a large home in the capital, Tirana.   Helen and Rose – freed by their servants of domestic chores – spent their time writing, gardening, walking,  and enjoying their leisure time. They socialized with Albanians and the expat community.    With the purchase of a Victrola gramophone, their large living room became the site for dances frequented by friends – including Albanian government ministers. They travelled: to Northern Albania, Budapest, Vienna and Venice. However, all was not rosy in their new Albanian life, since  earth tremors and the political situation brought instability of all sorts into their lives.

After an exciting 15 months, Helen and Rose decided to return to the US. According to one account, Helen saw a picture of a baked potato and was homesick. More convincing explanations lie in Rose’s guilt at being away from her parents, and also dental/work issues. As they were preparing to leave, a telegram arrived from Laura Ingalls Wilder, which led to their immediate departure. They sailed first to Greece, and then on February 2, 1928 boarded the S.S. Saturnia, arriving in New York thirteen days later. After a brief stop in New York, they went their separate ways: Helen  to visit her family and consult with her publishers, and Rose  to her parents in Mansfield, Missouri.

Back in the US

In June 1928, Helen rejoined Rose in Missouri. Rose was full of enthusiasm to build an “Rock House” for her parents, with the idea that she and Helen would live in the (modernized) farmhouse that was currently the family’s home.

The Rock House, built by Rose for her parents. Credit: Billy Hathorn CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons

As for Helen, her book “War Sister” had been published in 1927 and she had decided to be a freelance writer.  Helen had inherited more money, and was not totally dependent on her writing.   Until the new house was built, she wrote in a green tent on a hill but also enjoyed riding about the countryside on her horse, Governor. She was also called on for some nursing duties, including delivering a local baby. Life was going well: until the stock market crash of 1929.

Helen (and Rose and her parents) were heavily invested with George Q. Palmer’s company. For years, the investments had performed well, and after the initial shock of the crash – Rose said that Helen was at first “nearly insane with depression” – there was hope that the market and their investments would recover. For about two years, there were continuing payments from Palmer, but finances were very tight.  Money was even scarcer because magazines were buying fewer and fewer articles.  Helen and Rose even briefly considered cattle-farming as a way to make money.  Then in November 1931 came the terrible news that the Palmer income had stopped permanently. Helen was still determined to be a short story writer, but financial need forced her back to her father’s house in New Hampshire; and in the interim she apparently went back to nursing.   A letter in her Red Cross file suggests that she continued to travel around Europe until about 1935, perhaps doing similar work to Kitty Van Buskirk, but I have found no travel records to support this.

Eva Le Gallienne about 1923-1928 (Library of Congress)

Helen made some useful contacts with some prominent women in the arts which helped her.  Sadly, Rose Wilder Lane was jealous of the way that Helen always seemed to fall on her feet.

In 1933 Rose wrote a bitter portrait in her journal: A letter from Troub says she has Ida Wylie‘s Connecticut house rent free for the summer, with use of a Buick convertible coupe and Eva Le Gallienne‘s riding horses…. a crowing triumphant letter. There is a woman well into the thirties, with no more sense of responsibility than a spoiled child – lazy, untidy, careless, self-centered,short-sighted, and completely insensitive, with the New Englander’s curious pride of intellectuality based on nothing- no achievement, no effort toward achievement.  And she always gets what she wants…. It is true that she doesn’t want much and has no pride to interfere with any easy means of getting it.  She doesn’t want more life, but less: she cares only to get through each day with as little effort or discomfort as possible, and like a child she will be happy with a feather or a colored pebble.   She will have a happy, carefree summer in Connecticut, spoil Ida Wylie’s house a little, probably ruin the car, and somehow land nicely on her feet for next winter in New York.”  It probably did not help that Rose owed Helen money at the time. 

The actress Eva Le Gallienne (and presumably her horses) lived in Westport, CT, and another source confirms that this was where Helen spent the summer of 1933.  In October, Helen visited her parents, giving a reading of her work there.  For despite Rose’s unkind words, Helen was writing and also getting published, including The Forum article with the account of the purchase and licensing of Zenobia.   And in fact a story about a horse, published by Harpers Magazine in 1933.   But Helen was still unsettled: in a form in her Red Cross file dated August 15 1934 she wrote that she was planning  to move to Arizona for a year, and she duly appears in the 1935 Tucson City Directory living on “Campbell Avenue cnr Indio”.

Sue Barton and Carol Page

From 1936 on, Helen’s writing career took off. She published a Sue Barton book each year – Student Nurse (1936), Senior Nurse (1937), Visiting Nurse (1938), Rural Nurse (1939) and Superintendent Nurse (1940). The first two books, though set in the 1930s, were in fact largely based on her own experience at the Massachusetts General Hospital twenty years before.  The first book’s October 1936 copyright record has Helen living in Tucson, but this is another example of records implying that Helen was living in multiple places at the same time.  She is also listed in the 1935 Weston Connecticut directory as living at Cobbs Mill (probably this place),  with Margaret Ayer Cobb (1877-1965)  a former singer and widow of the newspaper writer and editor Frank Irving Cobb), her daughter newspaper columnist daughter Jane Ayer Cobb (later Berry), and son Hubbard who also beginning a career in the newspaper world. The dedication of Sue Barton – Senior Nurse is to Jane Ayer Cobb, giving thanks for her “criticism and knowledge of modern young conversation have been invaluable, both in this book and in the volume preceding it”.  Jane was a 20 year old in 1935, while Helen was 40.  Intriguingly, the Cobb-Berry family suggest that Jane was actually co-author of Sue Barton books. Jane’s 1979 obituary states that she was a ‘silent collaborator’ on the Sue Barton and Carol Page books, and that the Carol Page books were actually ‘originated’ by Jane. Further, a 2010 online post about the Sue Barton books seemingly written by Jane’s son Ben, states that “Jane Cobb Berry did the dialog and other writing, while troub (my late godmother) did the nursing parts.”  Jane and Helen certainly later collaborated on other works: they authored 7 articles for the Atlantic Monthly together between 1946 and 1950.

The location for Sue Barton – Visiting Nurse was the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Lillian Wald, the founder of the Henry Street Settlement, had retired to Westport, 5 miles from Weston, in 1933, and she too was writing.

Lilian Wald (1867-1940) Credit: Harris & Ewing, Public domain

Unsurprisingly,  she and Helen met, with Sue Barton: Visiting Nurse being the result. Wald appears in the book  and Boylston describes her as a  “woman of middle height, with greying hair and a strong rugged face – the kindest face that Sue had ever seen, but yet a face of power and determination”.  Sue herself says “She has a kind of power- but it’s more than that – it’s a – a kindness- in her face, in her voice, in her eyes. And you feel that she couldn’t possibly be petty, or small. She’s the first person I ever met in my life that I know couldn’t do a  mean thing!”

Helen did some direct research by visiting the Settlement: in the book’s dedication she thanks some of the administrators (including Katherine Faville) as well as Margaret Feagans and Ella Murningkeit “who tramped the districts with me day after day, gladly sharing with me their knowledge and experience.” 

Sue Barton – Rural Nurse (1939) and Sue Barton – Superintendent Nurse (1940)  were set in New Hampshire, where Helen had grown up. With Sue married and pregnant, Boylston planned that the Sue Barton series would end.

Through the years, the social columns in Portsmouth Herald record Helen’s regular visits to her father and stepmother. Helen often gave public readings during her visits.  In August and September 1939, Helen, her stepmother and a Miss Adams of Westport went on a road trip to the West Coast including the Grand Canyon.  Following the trip,  her stepmother gave the readings from Helen’s diary at the YWCA in Portsmouth.  Although Helen was making her living as an author, she continued to list herself as a “writer and nurse” in city directories until 1963.  And she put her skills into practice:  there is a 1938 newspaper account of how she gave assistance to the victim of a wasp sting whose screams of pain led the driver to swerve into a ditch.

In 1940, Helen’s play “The Keys” was adapted for radio, and appeared in 1941 was in a collection of  “non-royalty radio plays”. This “drama for women”  about life in a mental health institution in California,  was produced multiple times over the next few years, including in Canada, and the Philippines and several times in the US.

In about 1940-41, Helen had a new project: she had received a 6 year contract to write a series of books, this time about a budding actress, Carol Page. Her Westport friend, Eva Le Gallienne provided some help and information, and in 1941 Helen lived for a time in New York doing research.  She was apparently still keen to travel: a letter from Katherine Faville to the Red Cross superintendent suggested that Helen might write something about Red Cross to aid in recruitment for nurses during the war, especially if it involved some reporting from abroad.  But the Red Cross did not take up the offer, and instead during the war Helen wrote the Carol Page books:  Carol Goes Backstage (1941),  Carol Plays Summer Stock (1942), Carol on Broadway (1944) and Carol on Tour (1946).

The Second World War gives us a quick glimpse into the life of Helen’s classmate  Connie Hoyt Powell.  She had given up nursing after her marriage to raise four children.  But when war came along,  as described in a 1944 letter to the Nursing School at MGH, she began nursing again, at first teaching Home Nursing for the Red Cross, but later, “I decided it wasn’t enough—that I would really go back and work at a hospital. I started out working one day a week, but soon changed to five days a week, working from 9 to 4, as a floor nurse at the University Hospitals, Cleveland, on the Gyn. service —and I love it, and proved what I always believed—that a nurse never really forgets and I soon felt like a veteran.”

Somewhere between 1943 and 1946, Helen Boylston moved out of Cobb’s Mill and into her own home nearby at 21 Georgetown Road.   With the war over, she turned away from Carol and back to Sue, publishing Sue Barton – Neighborhood Nurse and  Sue Barton – Staff Nurse in 1949 and 1952 respectively. The former was dedicated to Margaret Ayer Cobb. Then in 1955, she returned to the Red Cross and published Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross, a biography written for young adults.

Final years

There is very little information available about the last thirty years of Helen’s life.  She lived in her house on Georgetown Road until about 1972, but by February 1973, Helen’s dementia meant that she was incapable of managing her own affairs. With no family to help, Helen had a conservatrix to manage her affairs,  a lawyer named Virginia Boyd.  According to a letter by Boyd written at the time, Helen had suffered a crushed vertebra and was living in a nursing home in Weston.  Despite her successful writing career, Helen needed money, so her lawyer wrote to the Red Cross asking if former nurses received pensions.  She wrote that Helen “is not indigent but her income is not sufficient to pay for the nursing home care which she will need for an indefinite period.” She was told that they did not.

In 1979 Helen was living at St. Joseph’s Manor, a nursing home in Trumbull, Connecticut, presumably as a result of her declining mental abilities: when William Holtz interviewed her there in 1980 he described her as “deep in senility”.  In 1983, shortly before she died, ‘‘Travels With Zenobia,” was published by the University of Missouri Press.  The book, edited by Holtz, consisted of letters from Helen and Rose Wilder Lane to their friends and relatives in the US during their  travel to Albania.

Helen died on September 30, 1984, aged 89, leaving no known relatives.

Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984)- Part II

War Service

The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917,  but had nevertheless been supportive to the Allies before then.  One example was that the US supplied medical staff to tend  the wounded, and in this area Harvard University  had been very active.   From 1915 on, teams of doctors and nurses of the Harvard Unit set sail to Europe on 6 month tours.

In the Sue Barton books, after graduation Sue and Kit head off to work at the Henry Street Settlement in New York.  In real life, in August 1917, Helen and her friend Kitty Vanbuskirk left for France with Harvard Surgical Unit, where they worked at the General Hospital No. 22 of the British Expeditionary Force at Étaples.  In the books, Connie married an impoverished poet just after graduation.  But not in real life. Instead after graduation, Connie  moved back to Milwaukee.   In June 1918,  she too crossed the Atlantic to do war nursing: she worked temporarily with the Harvard Unit in France and then nursed with  Wisconsin Unit  Base 22 Hospital near Bordeaux.

harvard nurses leaving
MGH nurses sailing for France

Helen wrote a diary of her war experiences which was published in 1925 as a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly and later, in a longer version, as “Sister: a war diary“.   Helen worked as on various wards, including medical, orthopaedic, operating theatre and casualty stations, and nursed the survivors of the Operation Michael German offensive in March 1918 during which, according to her diary, the hospital admitted 4853 patients.   The hospital was bombed in a raid, leading to a terrifying brush with death.  Helen fell ill with flu, trench fever, and diphtheria.    But all was not work, and the diary mentions lots of parties, walks in the countryside, trips to the United Kingdom, Italy and South of France on leave or convalescence, as well as excitement with a series of short-term love affairs.  Kitty Vanbuskirk became engaged to a subaltern called Jerry, who was later killed.   Connie met and in November 1919 married Lt Charles Jeremiah Powell.

After the Armistice,  Helen returned to the United States on January 8, 1919. Following a visit to her father and stepmother in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, she returned to Boston, and began living at living at 35 Pinckney Street. From April 1919 she worked as operating assistant to Dr. E. Granville Crabtree, a urologist with whom she had worked extensively during the war.  During the war, Kitty Vanbuskirk had been operating nurse to another surgeon, Dr. Hugh Cabot, but Kitty had had enough of surgery during the war, and never worked in the operating theatre again. Kitty seems to have nursed in New York for a short time, and then became Assistant Superintendent of the Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Boston.  However, she did not enjoy the job.

According to Kitty’s memoir and Helen’s later writings,  Kitty saw a Red Cross recruiting poster,red cross recruiting poster 1917  and on December 22 1919 she suggested to Helen that they both sign up.    According to Kitty, “I said, Listen Troubie, we could do this when we’re fifty and sixty.  Let’s join the Red Cross and see the world! She looked at me and said “Do you mean it?”  I said, “yes”.  Helen remembered her reaction thus “Daddy, I know, wants me to settle down.  I hate to go back on Major Crabtree. But I am young!  I’m young! Why shouldn’t I live?  What is old age if it has no memories except of forty years or so of blank days!”

Red Cross work

Helen and Kitty applied to the Red Cross on January 5 1920.  Helen’s application (the only one available, for some reason), asks that they be assigned somewhere together.

Photo accompanying Red Cross application
Photo accompanying Red Cross application

Bureaucracies seem to have moved faster in those days, and despite the need for references, medical examinations etc., Boylston was accepted by the Red Cross on January 19 1920, with a salary of $70 a month and allowances.  She quickly applied for a passport and sailed with Kitty on February 21 1920.  They arrived in Paris on March 3 and were assigned to the Red Cross program in Tirana, Albania.  With all this travelling about, it is perhaps not surprising that Helen appears three times in the 1920 US census: once at her father’s New Hampshire address, once in  Boston, and once as a Red Cross volunteer in Europe.

Helen worked at the Tirana Hospital from March 25 to June 8, after which she joined mobile medical units working out of Tirana and then Valona (Vlorë). 

The political situation was very unstable, with multiple administrations/revolutions, as well as fighting between Albania and Italy.   Helen published a dramatic account of her experiences during the conflict in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1925, including how she and Kitty (called Molly in these memoirs), escaped a bullet:

main street tirana
Main Street, Tirana, Albania c1923

” Yesterday morning at dawn, Molly and I were awakened by the familiar crackle of rifle-shots, and with one move we leaped for the window.  In the courtyard the bullets were already pinging on the tiled walls. “It’s come at last,” we thought, and ducked as the windowpane splintered over our heads and a bullet lodged in the wall above Molly’s bed.”

As a nurse, Helen was reported to be a “most faithful and efficient worker”, but “young and inexperienced”Boylston became ill in mid July, and by mid August Kitty and Helen had returned to Paris to recuperate.  Following a 2 week vacation on September 17 1920 the pair were assigned to Poland – somewhere that Helen had specifically asked not to be sent on her Red Cross application form.

Helen and Kitty left for Poland left four days later, and on the train they met Rose Wilder Lane –  a journalist and writer, and the daughter of the as-yet-unknown Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Rose was to become an important friend and inspiration over the next ten years, as Helen transitioned from nurse to writer.  But in the meantime, Helen and Kitty worked in Krakow – until the beginning of February 1921 when they were sent back to Paris “due to a reduction in personnel” according to Helen’s Red Cross file.  Her work was described as “very good in all respects” though “she is apt to make associates feel her superiority, and is very exclusive. Intelligence above the average.” Hlen  was recommended for a service certificate. On the whole, she did not end up feeling very positive about her Red Cross experience.  A letter written about her in 1941 states that Helen felt her “unit was badly treated by the Red Cross in the last war” and that she “does not have too kind a feeling for the organization as a whole.”

American interlude

Before leaving Europe, Helen and Kitty met up with Rose,  who happened to be in Paris. The trio celebrated a mad Mardi Gras together with other friends: Helen went as a boy,  and Rose as a gypsy.   Kitty wore an elaborate Albanian harem costume, and another writer,  Dorothy Thompson, attended as a very elegant (male) Paris student.  On 26 February 1921, after a two week holiday, Helen and Kitty sailed on the “La Touraine” to New York.

Rose Wilder Lane
Rose Wilder Lane

It seems that Helen and Kitty planned another big adventure, this time to South America.  The idea had to be cancelled when Kitty’s mother suddenly died of meningitis in May 1921.  Kitty agreed to put her younger sister Ann through school by working as a psychiatric nurse, which typically she did in a rather exciting way: travelling with long-term patients to places such as Egypt, South Africa, France and Bermuda!  In 1935, aged 41, Kitty returned to Canada where she married a childhood friend, the dentist Karl Fairfield Woodbury.  She had to a son, and spent the rest of her life in the Halifax area.

Helen, on the other hand, began nursing again at the Massachusetts General Hospital from July 1921 to April 1923.  She worked as the staff nurse of the outpatient ENT department, and taught “etherizing”.  She then began doing private nursing work. A “letter” to Rose, written around this time and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1925, suggests that she was very unsettled about her future, and was wondering about doing more Red Cross work or training to be a doctor.

Between 1923 and 1924,  Helen moved to New York, where she worked as a private nurse, likely for the family of George Q. Palmer, a prominent financier and destined to become an important character in the Helen’s future.   In November 1923, she  reconnected with Rose Wilder Lane, and in January 1925  left her job and travelled with Rose to Rose’s family home in Mansfield, Missouri for “an indefinite stay”.  Laura Ingalls Wilder was ill, and had recalled her daughter: Helen would be useful as a nurse, but Helen’s motivation was probably to learn from Rose, a much more experienced writer.

Rocky Ridge Farm, Mansfield Missouri. Credit: TimothyMN - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Rocky Ridge Farm, Mansfield Missouri. Credit: TimothyMN – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the diaries and letters published in the Atlantic Monthly in the fall of 1925 include a note saying that Helen was had given up nursing to become writer. And from 1924 on, entries in street directories list her as a “writer and nurse”.  Helen was probably helped to be able to do this because of a small inheritance she had received, and which she invested with the investment company of her former employer George Q. Palmer. She had been receiving a good return on her investments, and Rose Wilder Lane soon opened an account of her own.

However, the travel bug was still present.  In September 1925, Helen, Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder went on a 6 week road trip through  Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California.  Rose had been planning another trip to Europe, specifically Albania, in part to spend some time with her boyfriend, the journalist and writer Guy Moyston.  In the end, it was decided that Boylston would go on the trip too.  Rose and Helen sailed for Paris on March 20, 1926.

Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984) Part I

Helen Dore Boylston
Helen Dore Boylston

 Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984)

In a 1967 note to a British edition of her books,  Helen Boylston stated that she used many of  her own experiences at the nursing school in Boston as a basis for many of the nursing episodes in the first two books of the Sue Barton series. As those who know the books well will find, there are other similarities between the lives of Helen Boylston and Sue Barton, but a great many differences too.  Helen had a very exciting and interesting real life: quite as engaging as her character, in fact.


Helen Dore Boylston was born on April 4, 1895 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Her father was a dentist, Joseph Boylston (born 1866 in Duxbury, Massachussetts), and her mother Fannie Dore Wright, a school teacher (born 1865 in  Bangor, Maine).  The couple had married in Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1893, and Boylston was their first, and as it turned out, only child.  In 1899 when Boylston was only three, Fannie died of pneumonia. The 1900 census finds Boylston and her father living at 37 Cabot Street in Portsmouth along with two servants and a schoolteacher lodger.  In 1908, Boylston caught typhoid, and in 1913 had her appendix out but otherwise seems to have an active, happy, privileged childhood: her father was a prominent, yacht-owning dentist and Justice of the Peace.  The local newspaper contains several reports of Helen  participating in plays, concerts and parties.   For example, for  her 15th birthday in 1910, the following appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.  “Miss Helen Boylston of Lincoln avenue entertains a party of young friends her home this evening.”  According to the 1910 census Boylston was boarding on Lincoln Avenue with the Ivah and Annie Davis family: her father had an dental office at 39 Pleasant St, Portsmouth but seems to have been living elsewhere, possibly in rooms at his office.  Also in 1910, Joseph Boylston remarried, to another school teacher, Mabel Mathes.

Nursing training

Helen graduated from high school in 1913, and began her nursing training at the Massachussetts General Hospital (MGH) in 1914- though the exact date is unclear.    For this part of Helen’s life a book entitled “History of the Massachussetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses“, written by Sara E. Parsons and published in 1922, has been a fascinating resource.  At the time, prospective student nurses who were lacking adequate studies in the sciences were encouraged to take a preparatory course at Simmons College, Boston before they entered the training school.  Boylston later noted that she had one year of college education and that she attended Simmons for special courses in 1914 so this may have been that she did this prior to entering the nursing school.

Based on the dates given by the elderly patient who had met Florence Nightingale, the Sue Barton books were set in the 1930s. However,  in all other ways the hospital and its staff seem very faithfully portrayed as Helen Boylston knew them twenty years earlier.

Bulfinch building c. 1922
Bulfinch building c. 1922

Pictured on the right is  Bulfinch building,   with the Rotunda showing as it was in about 1922.   In Sue Barton- Neighborhood  Nurse (1949), Boylston describes the building in this way: She [Sue Barton] was looking at the old hospital — the original building — built over a hundred years ago. It was a domed building of gray stone with ivied columns on either side of the wide central steps. Mats and fingers of ivy clung in a mist of budding green. It was a beautiful hospital, its lines flowing together in the harmony of utter simplicity.”

Thayer building c. 1922
Thayer building c. 1922

The Thayer building, one of the two residences for nurses, was presumably the model for Brewster Hall which is described as a “large brick building covered with ivy” in Sue Barton- Student Nurse, Chapter 1.  It has since been demolished.

Based on the  photo here, the nursing classroom seems very much as described in the books.  “At the foot of the stairs the girls found themselves in a brick basement and face to face with a sink… Across one side of the room, against the wall, there were perhaps ten more beds.”  Sue Barton- Student Nurse chapter 3.

“In 1912, a most important step was taken in improving the preliminary course by thoroughly equipping a room in the “Thayer” for the instruction of students in practical nursing procedures, and installing as full-time instructor Annabella McCrae, who had been first assistant in the Training School office” Parsons p109

Surgery at MGH c. 1922
Surgery at MGH c. 1922

The operating rooms: “Two gowned operating nurses appeared at the doorway wheeling in their sheeted table. An orderly followed with a stretcher bearing the profoundly sleeping patient. An anesthetist hurried beside him, pulling after her the gas-oxygen machine….. A house officer appeared and pushed his table of instruments into place. And then the tall figure of the surgeon, bare arms dripping soapy water down his white trousers, came briskly through the doorway.”  Sue Barton – Senior Nurse, chapter 4.

nursing uniforms
From left to right, uniforms of student, probationary and staff nurse at MGH (c. 1922)

What about the uniforms?  “So there were three kinds of uniform.  She already knew that probationers wore blue.  Now it seemed that students wore gray and the staff nurses white.”  Sue Barton – Student Nurse, Chapter 1

“All the nurses Sue had seen had worn grey uniforms with white bibs and aprons, and stiff collars and ruffs.  Their caps were like Miss Mason’s – stiff, pleated white crinoline, oval in shape and scarcely larger than a teacup.  They were about three inches high in the front, and sloped back, each with a tiny pleated ruffle around its base.  They looked very odd, Sue thought.”  Sue Barton – Student Nurse, chapter 1

sara e parsons
Sara E Parsons c 1922

The character of Miss Matthews, the superintendent of the nursing school, was likely based on the real life Sara E. Parsons served in that position from 1910 to 1920.

“Miss Matthews was sitting at her desk, her stout figure in its white uniform sharply outlined against the window.   Sue noticed with real dismay that there were gray strands in Miss Matthews’s brown hair.”   Sue Barton- Senior Nurse, chapter 16.

Miss Cameron was based on Annabella McCrae, the fearsome but inspiring instructor at the school, who wrote ‘Procedures in Nursing in 1923.  In Sue Barton – Student Nurse, Sue notices her “keen blue eyes seeping over the class, and a wide, stern mouth, clamped shut….Miss Cameron was in white from head to foot.  Even on her cap she wore no black velvet band – the black band of the trained nurse.

annabella mccrae
Annabella McCrae c. 1922

Miss Parsons’s history of the nursing school describes how from 1912 on, McCrae had taught “all the probationers their practical nursing procedures. Her quick, keen eye and critical tongue, combined with a warm heart, intense loyalty, high ideals and keen sense of humor, have enabled her to impress her ideals upon her students  in such a way that few could ever go into the world without recalling her example and her admonitions for thoroughness in method and her sympathy for all human suffering.” (p. 110-111). Her 1918 curriculum includes Lesson XXXIX, the Hot Air Bath, that caused much angst to Sue and her friends, but also helped her understand her demanding teacher. (p. 21).   Helen wrote a 1925 article in the American Journal of Nursing in which she recalled her  instructor in practical nursing listening to Christmas carols at the hospital and realized that “for many years she had struggled  to drive into the heads of romantic youngsters all the ideals and traditions of our school. I was scared to death of her, and so was everybody else. But now, standing there by the old gray walls of the hospital she loved, with the stern lines of her mouth softening as she listened, her kind eyes hidden by the darkness, and they were kind, as I knew from past experience,-with the snow sifting down over her hair and cap and stiff white uniform, very suddenly she became, for me, the spirit of nursing itself.”  A similar scene involving Miss Cameron appears in Sue Barton – Student Nurse. Much later, in 1967, Helen Boylston wrote that Miss Cameron was so real she scares me yet, though I loved her dearly. She was greatly amused to find herself in a book and wrote me a charming letter about it.

In the same note Boylston wrote “Every single incident in the first two ‘Sue’s’ – nursing incidents, I mean – actually happened, either to me or to some of my classmates. Kit and Connie were real, and those are their real names. Same goes for Bill. Francesca and Hilda were also taken from life, though those are not their real names. Hilda, in fact, was my room-mate when I was in probe.”   To date it has not been possible to identify the real life counterparts of Bill, Francesca or Hilda, but the character of Kit Van Dyke was clearly modelled on Katharine (Kitty) Van Buskirk (1894-1980s).  Like the fictional Kit, Kitty came from a large and lively family in Canada (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to be exact), who was indeed sent to a convent school after an escapade involving a late night return after a dance.   Kitty’s travels can be traced on various genealogical websites, including the immigration documentation of what seems to be her trip on Boxing Day 1913 to begin her training at MGH in Boston.  In May 1980,  Kitty was interviewed for a World War I Canadian nursing project and talked about her training at MGH and her friendship with Helen.  Kitty recalled  “She [Helen] was called “Trouble” Boylston.  Either she or I was always in trouble.  She was really a riot.”  Kitty Van Buskirk’s memoir recounts many details familiar from the books, including the large rubber doll for practicing nursing procedures.   Referring to the books, Kitty stated that  “What she [Boylston] did was to put all the funny things that we did together and put it all under one name, because you have to have a heroine.” In Kitty’s account,  the attack by the delirious patient, and climbing up the ivy into the residence after being locked out  actually happened to her.   In real life, in the latter escapade, Kitty was caught, reprimanded and almost did not graduate!!

constance hoyt 1916
Constance Hoyt’s 1916 passport application photo. Courtesy of familysearch.org

Sue’s other close friend, Constance (Connie) Halliday, was   based on Constance Hoyt (1891-1959),  the  daughter of the prominent Milwaukee lawyer Frank Mason Hoyt and his wife Hettie. Like her fictional counterpart, Constance was brown-haired and petite  –  only 5 foot tall.  During her childhood, Constance lived in a large house in a posh area of town.  She attended the private Milwaukee-Downer Seminary school, where she was a member of the Author’s Club: a clue perhaps to her triumph as the author of the cockroach speech in Sue Barton- Student Nurse.  She was also a bit older than Helen and Kitty, so as suggested in Chapter 2 of Student Nurse maybe her mother did try to marry her off for a few years before Connie decided to train as a nurse.

Wesson Maternity Hospital
Wesson Maternity Hospital

Helen, Kitty and Connie,  like Sue, spent four months at a maternity hospital, in reality the  Wesson Maternity Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts.   The picture on the right presumably shows “a truckful of babies” mentioned in Sue Barton: Senior Nurse.   This blogpost provides some other photos of another MGH student nurse at Wesson’s, probably a couple of years after Helen.

Mclean Psychiatric Hospital as it was in 1903
McLean Psychiatric Hospital as it was in 1903

It is interesting, but perhaps understandable, that Helen did not include certain less “family friendly” aspects of her nursing training in her books. For example,  Helen and her fellow students had 4 month placement at a psychiatric hospital, the McLean Hospital in Waverley.   The experience made a deep impression on Kitty Van Buskirk, who talks extensively of her experiences there in her memoir. In 1916, Helen Boylston was the substitute Head Nurse of Male Surgical Ward and also in 1916, worked at the Venereal Disease clinics at the hospital – an experience also not fictionalized in the Sue Barton books!  From January 1917 till July-August 1917 she was the Head Nurse in charge of the Venereal Clinics, with her duties including undertaking social service visits.

MGH Graduation class of 1919
MGH Graduation class of 1919

Helen Boylston graduated in the spring of 1917.  Two different dates are given in two different documents:  April 15 1917 and June 21 1917.   Perhaps as explained in the opening chapter of Sue Barton – Senior Nurse, there was an official graduation on the 15th, and Boylston had some time to make up due to illness.

Overall, Helen seems to have been well thought of as a nurse.  In a 1920 reference, nursing superintendent Sara Parsons wrote that  Helen “is neat, refined, pleasant with a good deal of initiative and good executive ability. A clever young woman.”   With interesting foresight, Parsons concludes  “She has unusual ability in some ways. She writes unusually well”. 

Authors’ real lives: an opening post


I plan to publish an  occasional series about the real lives of some less well-known authors whose books I have enjoyed.  In my first post, I am going to talk about some of my researches into the real life story of Helen Dore Boylston.  This American nurse turned writer was active in the 1930s to 1950s writing, most famously, the Sue Barton nursing series, as well as the  Carol Page actor series.

A word of explanation on sources: I have linked freely available references as a source or for more explanation, but in the interests of time, not those where paid subscriptions or trips to the library are needed.

Addendum November 1918 – after some further researches, I have discovered the likely real life identity of Constance Halliday, and have edited the relevant posts to include this information.