Images can be iconic and indicative of their era but sometimes the lives of the subjects are difficult to determine without research and perseverance. Such was the case with the accompanying portrait of Gertrude Simmons. She was a graduate of the second class of Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses in Quincy, Illinois. She was born in 1871, in Barrie Canada, a town north of Toronto in central Ontario. Harriet Sewry, the superintendent of the training school, was also from Barrie and is likely one reason Gertrude traveled so far and another may have been that her mother was from Illinois.
Looking through the roster of graduate and pupil nurses in 1895, four were from Canada,three from Missouri, three from Illinois, one from Tennessee, and one from Peterborough, England. Some of these young women travelled great distances to come to the training school. This demonstrates to us that Quincy was a transportation hub of river traffic and railroads.
The portrait shows Miss Simmons wearing a cape and bonnet. The nursing students were sent out to do private duty nursing in homes and in 1894 they asked the Board of Lady Managers of Blessing Hospital if they could have an outside uniform to identify them as nurses. The Board bought gray fabric for $2.25 per yard and had the garments made. The nurses had to buy the cape and hat.
Miss Simmons never married, had no local relatives, and left no diary or letters. We only know about her life through her career, a great part of which was spent in Quincy. She graduated in May, 1895 and her first job was nursing at Blessing along with Clara Bell from the 1894 class. They were the only two graduate nurses other than the superintendent to care for the hospital patients. Miss Simmons stayed until November 1896. She applied for a position with a family in Rome, Italy and when that didn’t happen; she decided to take a graduate nursing course in Chicago.
Returning to Quincy in 1897, Miss Simmons worked at the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Home, now known as the Veterans Home. She was one of five nurses who cared for between 200 and 300 veterans, mostly from the Civil War, although some were from the Spanish-American War of 1898. She remained at the Soldiers and Sailors Home until 1914.
In August, 1906, she became an American citizen, which at that time involved the payment of $1.00 to the county clerk for naturalization papers. The clerk was busy that summer as the law was due to change September 27 and naturalization was to become a ceremony with a circuit judge presiding and a payment of $5.00.
In 1909, Gertrude Simmons began putting R.N. for registered nurse behind her name. The Illinois nursing licensure bill had passed in 1907. Graduates of accredited schools such as Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses who graduated prior to 1909 were grandfathered in and did not have to take the licensure exam.
In 1914, according to the Quincy Daily Whig, Miss Simmons opened an office with Mrs. Bertha Trimbell Case on north Sixth Street, where they treated patients, under a doctor’s supervision, with “massage, medical baths, electricity and gymnastics.”The partnership did not last. The 1916 Quincy City Directory listed Mrs. Case in a beauty parlor in the St. James Hotel on Sixth Street and Miss Simmons as nurse living at 1220 N. Fifth Street. Miss Simmons was doing private duty nursing, which was the most common type of nursing at that time, during and after her partnership with Mrs. Case.
With the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917, both the state and federal government asked for workers of all types. The civil service examination was needed for post office positions, engineers, clerical workers, railway mail, clerkships, and other occupations. Announcements for the examination appeared frequently in the Quincy papers. The Quincy Daily Journal titled their article of August 7, 1917 as “Uncle Sam Needs Men and Women; Positions Surpass Applicants,” along with other articles about Quincyans leaving for government jobs in Washington DC. Miss Simmons passed her examination in October and soon left for Chicago to work in public health.
Three years later she returned to Quincy where she became the visiting nurse for the Adams County Tuberculosis League. She was responsible for the compilation of a five year county survey of tuberculosis cases. The report covered deaths and suspected cases, stating, “Farm and city housewives and housekeepers and domestics are the classes which suffer worst from the ravages of the white plague according to the tabulation while lawyers and physicians are apparently exempt from the disease.”
Part of her job as the visiting nurse was to talk to groups in Quincy and the county, participate in clinics, and attend community and statewide meetings. She considered the rehabilitation of the ex-service men and women to be one of the county’s biggest problems, working usually without the cooperation of the “boys.” She worked with women of the Home Bureau, the organization of University of Illinois Extension Services and helped with Cheerful Home well-baby clinics, along with school inspections and examinations of school children for infectious diseases.
Miss Simmons served as the credentials chair for the Eighth District Graduate Nurses’ Association. Late in 1922, she resigned as county tuberculosis nurse. Although she had spent most of her professional life in Quincy and would be leaving many friends, she moved to Tuscola, Illinois and became the Red Cross school nurse. She returned to Quincy in June, 1923 as a guest of the Woman’s Luncheon Club. She also visited the Quincy Unit of the Adams County Home Bureau. By then Miss Simmons was 52 years old, and apparently left no additional records of her life or work. At some point, she returned to Quincy and died there in 1954.
“Foreigners Must Hurry.” The Quincy Daily Journal. September 24, 1906.
“Great Day for Old Veterans.” The Quincy Daily Whig, December 19, 1900.
Board of Lady Managers Minutes, 1896-1900. Quincy, IL: Blessing Health System Archives.
Board of Trustees.Report of Blessing Hospital and the Training School for Nurses, 1895, Quincy, IL: Blessing Health System Archives.
“County Survey of Tubercular Cases is Given Public.” The Quincy Daily Journal, April 8, 1921.
Executive Committee and Board of Lady Managers Minutes, 1892-1895. Quincy, IL: Blessing Health System Archives.
“Miss Simmons Leaves Blessing Hospital.”The Quincy Daily Journal. November 17, 1896.
“Notice.”The Quincy Daily Whig, October 6, 1914.
“Payson Girl is Critically Ill.” The Quincy Daily Herald, July 24, 1915.
“Quincy Nurses are Among New Officers for Eighth District.” The Quincy Daily Journal, February 9, 1922.
The City Directory. Quincy, Il., 1916.
“Tuberculosis Work Told of In Past Year.” The Quincy Daily Journal, August 16, 1921.
“Uncle Sam Needs Men and Women; Positions Surpass Applicants.” The Quincy Daily Journal, August 7, 1917.