Flora Cleland

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

Brave and compassionate, Flora May Cleland was a nurse who cared for the youngest and most vulnerable members of her community—and valiantly worked to save the lives of soldiers wounded in a global conflict.

Flora May Cleland, the eldest daughter of Robert James and Margaret Mary Cleland, was born near Cutler on February 4, 1879. Flora’s father was a Scottish farmer who had moved from his home near Glasgow to southern Illinois, where he met and married her Irish-American mother. Robert and Margaret had a large family, the kind that was necessary to support a nineteenth-century farm. In 1880, that farm was located in the rural land around Sparta. By the time Flora was ten, she had six siblings, and two more would soon be added.

By 1900, the Cleland family had settled on a farm near Percy in rural Randolph County. Flora, who was 21, had finished her education, but she was still living at home with her parents and the rest of her siblings. 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. 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. The orphanage stayed open until 1930, but by 1917, Flora had left her post there for a daunting new career challenge.

World War I had been raging in Europe since 1914, and the United States entered the conflict in April 1917. The doctors and nurses of Washington University in St. Louis had been preparing for the moment for almost a year. Historian Donna Bingham Munger writes that, when the Red Cross called for the formation of military hospital units in 1916, “all of the faculty members had volunteered” at Wash U. They never thought they’d actually be called on to deploy overseas. Significant fundraising efforts had followed, but the medical personnel were still surprised when, on the declaration of war in 1917, the British first requested help in the form of doctors.

The unit formed at Washington University Hospital became one of the first six hospital units to mobilize. Recruitment for nurses in St. Louis began immediately. The Post-Dispatch reported in May 1917 that the unit, now called Base Hospital Unit No. 21, had successfully recruited “28 officers, 141 enlisted men and 65 nurses.” The chief nurse of the unit was Julia Stimson, the daughter of a congregational minister who had been engaged in social service work in St. Louis for several years. When the paper announced the full personnel list of the unit, 38-year-old Flora Cleland’s name was included on the roster.

Flora Cleland's passport photo, 1917
Flora Cleland’s passport photo, 1917

The two years that followed would be some of the most remarkable and tasking years of Flora’s life. The men and women of the unit left St. Louis for New York on May 17, 1917, with a crowd of thousands cheering them as they departed from Union Station. Two days later, the unit boarded the steamship St. Paul in New York harbor, bound for Europe. The crossing was perilous—Germany had announced a few months earlier that their fleet of U-boats would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. On March 17 alone, the Germans sank three American merchant vessels. Now that the two countries were officially at war, military ships like the St. Paul were clear targets.

Thankfully, the ship managed to make the journey unscathed. Flora arrived in Liverpool with the rest of the unit on May 28. The sensitive nature of the unit’s work is reflected by the ship’s manifest on arrival, which listed their destination simply as “unobtainable.” The unit was assigned to the British Expeditionary Force. Three days later, Flora headed to the American Embassy in London to file an emergency passport application. As a nurse serving with the army, she told the embassy that she was “uncertain” when she’d be returning to the United States. (She also shaved a year off her age, giving her birth year as 1880.) The photograph that accompanied the application depicts a serious woman in uniform, ready for action but with no idea what would soon await her.

After two weeks of training courses in England, the unit crossed the Channel, arriving at La Havre on June 10. From there, the doctors and nurses traveled to Rouen, where they were assigned to take over the British military hospital that had existed there for nearly three years. The state of the hospital was dire. Located on the Champs des Courses, a racetrack, the facility consisted mostly of tent buildings that had been battered by the rainy climate of the area. The Americans moved quickly to replace the tents with more substantial huts, but the challenges of providing medical care at the location would continue regardless. Munger notes, “These facilities would prove to be marvelous in spring and summer. However, the one stove in each tent hardly provided sufficient heat to keep the patients, doctors or nurses warm in winter. The water inside the tents froze every winter night despite the fire in the stoves. Often the day nurse’s first duty in the morning was to thaw the solutions and medicines in the bottles before she could administer them.”

Base Hospital Unit No. 21 was equipped to provide care for a 500-bed facility, but the hospital in Rouen had 1300 beds for wounded soldiers. Immediately, the doctors sent requests for reinforcements. As war raged on in France, the hospital continued to be on the frontlines, functioning often as a kind of clearing station for British soldiers before they could be transported back to England for additional care. Flora and the nurses of the unit tended to soldiers suffering horrific wounds. The understaffed unit quickly found ways to streamline and innovate, allowing them to care for a much larger influx of wounded men. They developed new triage methods, as well as ways to more effectively use X-ray technology to diagnose their patients. In fact, Munger notes that “Base Hospital 21 used more X-ray plates than all the other base hospitals of the AEF combined.”

Additionally, the hospital was designated as a center to treat soldiers with neurological disorders, handling hundreds of cases of what was then called “shell shock.” Along with these patients, Flora would have assisted in numerous surgeries—at one point, Munger tells us, the hospital was averaging 60 operations a day. She would also have cared for men who had been gassed, who were suffering from trench fever, and who had contracted illnesses like bronchitis. As time went on, patients suffering from influenza would also take up a large percentage of the hospital’s beds.

The story of one particular patient would stay with Flora for the rest of her life. John Knight Simmonds was an English-born soldier from Australia. He had enlisted in the summer of 1915 at the age of 24, leaving his wife and small daughter behind in Sydney. Like Flora, he had also been trained as a nurse. His medical records are a tangle of various stints on the frontlines, punctuated by serious illnesses and horrific injuries. He suffered shell shock in December 1916 and was sent to England to recover. He returned to France in March 1918, and on April 28, he was wounded in action for a second time. Both of his legs were amputated as a result of his injuries, and he was awarded a medal for his bravery in combat. Miraculously, he managed to survive.

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

The Simmonds family, though, knew that John’s survival had been as dependent on the medical care he received as on a miracle from above. On November 28, 1918, Simmonds’s wife, Grace, penned a letter to Flora. “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.” She added, “I have met several returned boys who think your hospital far above all others in France. The boys simply rave about the sisters’ care and untiring efforts to make their stay in hospital a pleasure.”

Grace Simmonds did her best to tell Flora just how much her work had meant to the family. “Sister, will you try and understand how grateful I am to you all for saving a life which means happiness and everything worthwhile to me and our little girl,” she wrote. “I trust and pray that your life will be all sunshine and love and that care and trouble never enter your life.” John Knight Simmonds returned to Australia, where he and Grace lived a long life together, adding more children to their family. He died in 1964 at the age of 73. Flora kept Grace Simmonds’s letter for the rest of her life.

World War I officially ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918, but the conflict didn’t end immediately for the doctors and nurses of Base Hospital Unit No. 21. In Rouen, they continued to care for soldiers suffering from illnesses and injuries, as well as repatriated prisoners of war. The hospital was finally closed on January 22, 1919. After eighteen months on the frontlines, Flora and her fellow nurses sailed back to America in April. She was honorably discharged from military service on June 17, 1919, more than two years after she had initially enlisted.

Back in St. Louis, Flora immediately resumed her nursing work at home. One city directory from the period advertises her nursing work with the Visiting Nurses Association of St. Louis. She was also deeply involved with another cause: women’s suffrage. Women in Missouri had gained the right to vote in presidential elections in April 1919, just as Flora was traveling back from France, and the state ratified the 19th amendment in July 1919. The joy of the victory in the struggle for voting rights was followed, sadly, by unhappy news from home. Flora’s mother, Margaret Cleland, passed away in 1924. Her father followed six years later.

Though she remained close to her siblings and extended family members back home in Randolph County, Flora would make St. Louis her home for the rest of her life. By 1930, 51-year-old Flora was living in Westminster Place with a community of nurses. One of her fellow boarders at the nursing club was 57-year-old Rose Walker, who was born and raised in Coulterville before moving to St. Louis to begin her own career as a nurse. Flora and Rose were dear friends who would be companions for the rest of their lives. Both worked as nurses for the Board of Education of the St. Louis Public Schools. Rose worked as a nurse in the hygiene department, while Flora was a public health nurse.

Both Flora and Rose continued to work well into their 60s. By 1940, when they were living in an apartment on Maple Avenue in north St. Louis, they were both still working 40-hour weeks as nurses for the Board of Education. They remained on Maple Avenue until health concerns compelled them to seek additional care. They moved to a nursing home on South Grand in the city, where Rose died of congestive heart failure in December 1961. Flora suffered a heart attack nine months later, passing away on September 15, 1962, at the age of 83.

Flora Cleland's Foreign Service Certificate
Flora Cleland’s Foreign Service Certificate

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, her 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 May Cleland spent six 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—provide us all with an example and a challenge to do our part to improve the lives of those in need today.

Flora Cleland was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2022.