Mary Hill was born in 1887 in Lima, Illinois. She was the last of the seven children of Henry D. Hill and his wife Adelia. Mary lived at home until September of 1908 when she enrolled at Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses, graduating in 1911. After graduation, she was employed by Blessing Hospital until March 1914 when she took a job at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. She worked there for three months, returning home because of illness and shortly after took a job as a surgical nurse back at Blessing.
World War I began at the end of July 1914 and local newspapers were full of war stories from Europe. A few weeks into the war, the national organization of the American Red Cross voted to send a ship to Europe with medical personnel and supplies to serve in each country involved in the war. The SS Red Cross, dubbed “The Mercy Ship” was swiftly organized and sailed from New York in September 1914, with 170 medical personnel, Mary Hill among them. She left Quincy September 1, 1914 and joined a group of 12 nurses, who traveled from Chicago to join the ship in New York. The medical personnel were divided into hospital units, each with 12 nurses and three surgeons.
Mary Hill was enrolled in the Red Cross Nursing Service. It was formed in 1909 by an affiliation of the American Nurses Association and the American Red Cross which began after the Civil War and was active in the Spanish American War. Only graduate nurses were accepted in the service. Nurses applied and after extensive vetting with an examination and letters of recommendation, the nurses were placed on a list maintained by the nursing organization in each state. They had to agree to enter active service in time of war or national disaster.
The Hamburg-American Line had offered the ship Hamburg as transport free of charge and by a special Act of Congress the ship was allowed to change its name to the SS Red Cross, sail under American registry, and fly both the American and Red Cross flags. It was painted white with a red band. Miss Jane Delano, head of the Red Cross Nursing Service, personally picked the 120 nurses from a list of 5,000 volunteers.
During the voyage, the nurses each morning took classes, taught by the surgeons. They also took French and German language classes. They exercised and practiced nursing technique in the afternoon. This first group of Americans landed at Falmouth, England. There, the units were divided with two units going to each country involved in the war. Mary Hill was part of the group bound for Russia. They traveled from Falmouth to London on to Scotland, and then to Sweden and Finland. Their first Russian destination was Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg. There they were hosted by the American ambassador to Russia, and met the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna who was head of the Russian Red Cross. The surgeons were given rank as medical officers of the Russian Army and the nurses were given certificates as Russian Red Cross Sisters.
Their final destination was Kiev. Mary wrote home saying, “They (the Russians) may have been skeptical about the spirit that prompted the American Red Cross to send us abroad, but if they were I’m sure they are not now.”
The medical units used a Polytechnic Institute to set up their 400-bed hospital. The hospital was formally opened in December 1914, with wounded from the Austrian Front of the war. Mary wrote home that the beds were almost always filled and that she worked in the operating room. The units worked there until October 1915 when the American Red Cross recalled its personnel working overseas.
The Americans left Kiev, some going directly home and others moving on to help the Russian Red Cross. Mary Hill briefly worked with them but soon began her journey home on the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Russia and Asia to the Pacific Ocean. From there a ship took her to Japan and on to the Hawaiian Islands. She left the ship in San Francisco, spent time touring the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and arrived home December 20, 1915.
Mary’s adventures abroad were not finished. She was again selected to serve in the Red Cross Nursing Service in 1918. Her first post was at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. From there, she was sent oversees in July 1918. She was one of the few nurses who had experience having already seen wounded soldiers.
Mary’s father, Henry D. Hill, died in 1918, while she was serving in France. The newspaper notice mentioned Mary’s service “…in Russia caring for the wounded. This was when the Russian empire was fighting the general powers and before it had become a seething chaos of conflicting interests, cliques, and factions.”
After the war, Mary Hill continued working as a nurse. She did public health nursing in Chicago. She later worked at Ensworth Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri, and in Denver, Colorado. She died in 1960 and is buried in Lima, Illinois.
After Mary’s death, her niece applied for a military marker for her grave. The request was granted in 1961. The application only records her service in the Army Nurse Corps at Evacuation Hospital # 21 from enlistment date of April 23, 1918 until discharge date, July 13, 1919. She held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Her service in Russia with the Red Cross did not count as the United States was not at war in 1914.
The Red Cross Nursing Service, which served as the reserve of the Army Nurse Corps, learned some valuable lessons while serving in Europe from 1914 to 1915. They were much more organized, with a clear chain of command before the United States entered World War I in 1917. More than 18,000 nurses served during that conflict.
“Correspondence: Lima,” The Quincy Daily Journal. March 11, 1914.
Dock, Lavinia, et. al. History of American Red Cross Nursing. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922.
“Home from the War Zone,” The Quincy Daily Herald. November 6, 1915.
“Lima,” The Quincy Daily Journal, January 21, 1915
“Lima Locals,” Quincy Daily Journal. July 31, 1914.
“Nurses were well received in Russia,” The Quincy Daily Journal. January 22, 1915.
“Quincy Nurse to Leave for Europe,” The Quincy Daily Herald, September 1, 1914.
“Quincy Nurse Home From Year’s Work With Red Cross in Russia,” The Quincy Daily Herald. December 21, 1915.
The American National Red Cross, 2017
“The Ministering Angels,” Quincy Daily Herald, September 2, 1914.
“This the Jury’s Verdict in Case of Sudden Death of Prominent Lima Citizen,” The Quincy Daily Herald. August 31, 1918.