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Parsons, Emily Elizabeth (1824–1880)

Parsons, Emily Elizabeth (1824–1880)

Civil War nurse. Born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on March 8, 1824; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 19, 1880; eldest of seven children of Theophilus Parsons (a lawyer and later Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University) and Catherine Amory (Chandler) Parsons; graduated from Cambridge (Massachusetts) High School; student and volunteer nurse at the Massachusetts General Hospital; never married; no children.

Born in Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1824, the eldest of seven children of a lawyer who was also a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Emily Parsons grew up in Cambridge, where she graduated from Cambridge High School. Her early life was beset with a series of physical problems that made day-to-day activities particularly challenging. At five, a household accident blinded her right eye and impaired her sight in the left, and at seven, a bout with scarlet fever permanently damaged her hearing. In 1843, she suffered a severe ankle injury that made walking difficult and painful. Despite these afflictions, Parsons remained upbeat and active and was described as a particularly compassionate individual. After high school, she remained at home, assisting with the household and serving various charitable activities through her church.

Parsons was 37 years old when the Civil War broke out, and she became determined to volunteer as a nurse, although her father was against it. Following an 18-month course of study at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was assigned to the Fort Schuyler military hospital on Long Island Sound near New York City, and was placed in charge of 50 patients. Working 16-hour days, with duties that included assisting the surgeon, supervising orderlies, administering medicine and diets, and ordering supplies, Parson flourished in her newfound career. "To have a ward full of sick men under my care is all I ask," she wrote in a letter to her mother. "I should like to live so all the rest of my life."

The rigorous schedule and the damp conditions at Fort Schuyler took a toll on Parson's delicate constitution, and in December she was forced to leave the facility. While recuperating in New York City, she met Jessie Benton Frémont , who was recruiting nurses for a Western Sanitary Commission hospital in St. Louis. Thinking her health would improve in the West, Parson accepted Frémont's offer and in January 1863 began work at Lawson Hospital, St. Louis. A month later, she was appointed head nurse of the City of Alton, a hospital transport ship which steamed down the Mississippi carrying sick and wounded soldiers to hospitals in Memphis. "I feel now as if I had really entered into the inner spirit of the times,—the feeling which counts danger as nothing," she wrote at the time. Unfortunately, her enthusiasm was tempered by a bout of malarial fever which she contracted on the river.

It was not until April that Parsons had recovered sufficiently to begin an assignment as supervisor of nurses at the newly established Benton Barracks Hospital in St. Louis, a 2,500-bed facility and the largest military hospital in the West. It was one of the most important appointments given to a woman during the Civil War, and Parsons proved more than adequate for the job. An outstanding administrator as well as a capable and compassionate nurse, she was popular with both patients ("her boys," she called them) and staff. "I wonder what I shall do with myself when the war is over," she queried in another letter home. "I never can sit down and do nothing."

Following the war, Parsons continued hospital work, opening a general hospital in a rented house in Cambridge where she lived and treated destitute women and children who could not pay. Chartered in 1871 as Cambridge Hospital (later named the Mount Auburn Hospital), it is still in operation, although serving a broader patient base. Parsons died in her parents' home in Cambridge in 1880, at the age of 56. That same year, her father edited and published her war-time letters under the title Memoir of Emily Elizabeth Parsons, for the benefit of Mount Auburn Hospital.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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