Flora Cleland inducted into The Randolph Society

Flora Cleland in her WWI nursing uniform, ca. 1917
Flora Cleland in her WWI nursing uniform, ca. 1917

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Flora Cleland, a nurse who cared for the most vulnerable members of her community and valiantly worked to save the lives of soldiers wounded in a global conflict, will be inducted into the 2022 class of honorees.

Flora May Cleland was born near Cutler in February 1879. The daughter of a Scottish and Irish farming family, she spent her childhood in rural Perry and Randolph counties, settling with her parents and siblings on a farm near Percy.  While her elder brother worked with her father on the family farm, Flora set her sights on a very different kind of life for herself. In her early 20s, she decided to move to St. Louis to pursue a career in nursing, a vocation that would sustain her for the rest of her life.

One of Flora’s earliest professional nursing jobs was at the city’s Bethesda Foundlings Home. Founded in 1900 on Vista Avenue near the present-day home of St. Louis University, the orphanage cared for children under the age of three who had become wards of the city. In April 1910, 31-year-old Flora was working as the facility’s assistant head nurse, part of the all-female medical staff who cared for the infants and small children living in the home.

In May 1917, Flora volunteered for a daunting new challenge. She was recruited to join Base Hospital Unit No. 21, a medical unit out of Washington University heading to Europe during World War I. She was part of a staff of 65 nurses that arrived in France in the spring of 1917 to take over a frontline hospital from the British army. In Rouen, she worked tirelessly in difficult conditions, nursing soldiers who had been grievously wounded in combat. Flora treated soldiers suffering from shell shock, assisted in countless operations, and cared for men who had been gassed, who were suffering from trench fever, and who had contracted illnesses like bronchitis. As the influenza pandemic took over the world, she also cared for many soldiers who had contracted the often-deadly illness.

In the summer of 1918, Flora treated an Australian soldier, John Knight Simmonds, whose legs had to be amputated after he was wounded in battle. He managed to survive and was sent to England for further convalescence. His wife, Grace, wrote Flora a touching letter from Sydney, thanking Flora for saving her husband. “Dear Sister Cleland,” she wrote, “I feel so grateful to you for all your kindness and wonderful nursing which saved my husband’s life when he was so ill after his last operation. My husband tells me we owe his life to your careful nursing. Oh sister, I want to thank you for all you have done for us, but cannot express just how grateful I feel.” Flora kept the letter for the rest of her life.

After the war, Flora was honorably discharged from the military, and she returned to her nursing career in St. Louis. After working with the Visiting Nurses Association of St. Louis for a time, she was hired by the Board of Education of the St. Louis Public Schools to work as a public health nurse. She would devote the rest of her life to improving the health of the children of St. Louis, building on lessons she had learned while caring for orphaned children decades earlier.

After six decades in nursing, Flora died of a heart attack in St. Louis in September 1962. She was 83. Flora had devoted her entire life to providing medical care and comfort to others. After her passing, her family made sure that her dedicated service on the frontlines in France would not be forgotten. Flora was buried in Caledonia Cemetery in Sparta. Only a few days after her funeral, Flora’s niece, Florine McConachie, wrote to the army to apply for a military marker for Flora’s grave. The stone was approved, and it remains at her gravesite today. With bravery, kindness, and compassion, Flora Cleland spent decades caring for the abandoned, the sick, and the injured. Her special dedication to the health of the most vulnerable—the wounded soldier and the orphaned child—provides us all with an example and a challenge to do our part to improve the lives of those in need today.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Flora Cleland.