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”. 

2 thoughts on “Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984) Part I

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s