Just inside her brittle old scrapbook is a portrait of famed nurse Florence Nightingale on one page and the Pledge of Allegiance on the next. Alice Stewart, the first director of nursing for University Hospital, was a feisty trailblazer who was as devoted to her fellow nurses as she was loyal to her patients, according to accounts about her.
Stewart is one of the people from University’s past who will be featured by the hospital this year as it celebrates its 200th anniversary. Her story is told in yellowed newspaper clippings and papers donated to University after her death in 1974.
She came to University in 1919 soon after she returned to the U.S. after serving nearly four years in a French hospital caring for those wounded in World War I. A native of Miltford, Ohio, she was a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital in New York when she was inspired to go to the aid of those waging war in Europe caused by the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which killed a favorite patient who was on board, according to one newspaper account. She negotiated a salary of $40 a month and set off on a steamship with every window shuttered to help it avoid the U-boats.
In different articles over the years, she recounted various war experiences from her time as a Red Cross nurse in a hospital in an old chateau in Arc-en-Barrois, about 50 miles from the fierce fighting at Verdun. They would be awakened at 3 a.m. by the barrage of shelling from the front, she recalled, and then knew that fresh fighting was imminent.
They would spend 18 hours patching up a load of wounded only to be greeted by a fresh round, she told an interviewer. One soldier with wounds all over his body told her a shell exploded over him and threw him into a hole where he was buried up to his neck, with his head stuck “like a cabbage” out of the ground for two days.
Stewart recounted the odd tale of an aviator who went to his nearby home to console his sister only to have a bomb hit their house and blow her head off; days later, as he was telling that story, a bomb landed and he suffered the same fate mid-tale. Stewart received the “Gold Palm” award for merit from the French Minister of War for her aid to French troops, according to University.
She faced a different battle after being recruited from Roosevelt to become University’s operating room supervisor and ran up against the unfamiliar culture of the South. Soon after becoming nurse director and taking over supervision of the hospital’s nursing schools, the Lamar School for blacks and the Barrett School for whites, she discovered a vast difference in what was taught and provided to each. Stewart decided to change that.
“The time came when I couldn’t take the conditions of the colored nurses anymore,” she told the Sunday Augusta Chronicle-Herald in 1972, when she was 92 years old. “The hospital wouldn’t provide materials and the doctors wouldn’t teach the colored. I simply had to get the colored nurses the same training as the white.
“After much trouble and being called many names, I had the classes meet together, with the whites on one side and the colored on the other. The doctors didn’t like that very much but after a while everyone quieted down. I was called a damn Yankee but eventually the colored got some training. I did a lot of things rather underhandedly in those days.”
Stewart and the nurses helped keep the hospital running when Augusta and especially the area where University then sat was deluged in the great flood of 1929.
She noted, “No lights, dynamo (generator) underwater. No gas. Water up to the main hall in the hospital. Nurses marooned in the hospital who were on duty when the floods came. Personnel going from room to room with tall cathedral candles furnished by Augusta Funeral Homes, delivered by way of boat.”
She said in later interviews that University was a “political football” frequently beset by outside forces in Augusta. She resigned after 24 years as nursing director but stayed on for 14 more as a counselor to nursing students.
“The thousands of nursing students Ms. Stewart helped over her nearly half-century of work at University Hospital helped ensure a generation of nurses received the education they needed to improve the health of those we serve,” the hospital said in a statement. Stewart’s imposing portrait still hangs in nursing administration at the hospital and she is credited with setting the tone for caregiving there still.
Even after she left, she did not go quietly into retirement. She caused a minor uproar with a May 1957 letter to the editor in the Chronicle where she noted that in a recent assessment that her 40-year-old home on 15th Street had been assigned the same value as then-Augusta Mayor Hugh Hamilton’s house in Country Club Hills.
“The mayor’s home is palatial compared to mine, yet our taxes are the same,” she wrote. A copy of that letter, and a later story where the city assessors meekly reduced her tax bill, were among the clips she saved and donated back to the hospital.
The 1972 story notes that Stewart never married, nor felt the need to do so.
“Men never added anything to my prospects,” she said. “I loved my profession.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.