Campus & Community

Plaque honors Radcliffe women who died in WWI

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A plaque bearing the names of three Radcliffe women who died for their country in World War I will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, in Harvard’s war memorial, the Memorial Church. The Harvard community is invited to attend the ceremony.

Each honoree served and died as a nurse in the war, but because these women attended Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister school, they could not be honored when the Memorial Church was built. Now, almost 70 years after the church was dedicated, The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, seeks to “improve upon the judgment of our predecessors and to commemorate [the women’s] sacrifice with that of their brothers. By this, something permanent of what was best of Radcliffe College will now be forever a part of us.”

Dedicated on Armistice Day 1932, the Memorial Church was erected as a gift from the alumni to Harvard University. Given to honor the lives and sacrifices of those Harvard students, graduates, and faculty who died in World War I, the Memorial Church also included, in subsequent years, memorials to those who died in ensuing wars. Now, the women of Radcliffe College join their brothers in honored memory of wars and times since past. “This is an obligation of memory long overdue,” commented Gomes.

The Radcliffe Quarterly, in December 1918, noted the deaths of these three women.

“They gave their lives for their country and its allies just as surely as if they had met death in the trenches. To those of us who knew them in college there comes a curious feeling that we knew beforehand that each of them had in herself the qualities that command a courageous life and an heroic death.”

The women to be honored

  • Lucy Nettie Fletcher was born on the island of Jersey, England, on Feb. 18, 1886. She came to America when she was 16 and earned her degree from Radcliffe in the Class of 1910. Not long after graduation she entered a nurses training school at Massachusetts General Hospital, and after completing her training she left with the hospital unit in June 1917 for France, where she served as a nurse. In December of that year she was stricken with cerebro-spinal meningitis, and after a lingering illness she died on May 6, 1918. At her funeral, Capt. Henry Knox Sherrill, eventually to be rector of Trinity Church and Bishop of Massachusetts, conducted the service. “Miss Fletcher was esteemed highly by all soldiers, especially the Eighteenth Engineers,” he said. “It was her tireless work and devotion to duty that resulted in her death.” 
  • Ruth Holden was born on Nov. 27, 1890, in Attleboro and earned her degree from Radcliffe in 1911. She bloomed intellectually during her junior year and by graduation won the Capt. Jonathan Fay Prize for “the student making the greatest progress in the four undergraduate years.” She completed her postgraduate work in botany at Cambridge University in England and soon thereafter was elected a fellow of Newnham College. She later wished to join the British war effort as a nurse, but because she was an American national she could not. Alternatively, she enrolled with a medical unit organized for the relief of Russian refugees. She was heroic and unrelenting in her effort to assist diseased troops and refugees, but as a consequence she contracted a terminal infection, and during the cruel winter of 1917, she died. She was buried in Kazan, Russia, overlooking her favorite wood. At her service it was said of her, “She possessed in a remarkable degree that all-conquering energy which many consider the chief characteristic of genius.” 
  • Helen Homans was a Boston girl, born and bred. She descended on her mother’s side from John Adams and John Quincy Adams and on her father’s side from the Boston Homanses. In 1915 she took up nursing in France and stayed there in the thick of things until her death from influenza on Nov. 5, 1918, a little less than a week before the Armistice. Shortly before her death she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the head of the French medical staff. On her coffin was engraved ‘MORTE POUR LA FRANCE.’ Her medical colleagues had fought to keep her alive, and she herself had struggled valiantly: in the end, it was said, “She had given all her strength to save others.” A tablet in her memory hangs over the western doors in the nave of King’s Chapel in Boston.”Short-lived, gently heroic, and hopeful in the face of death, although they are long gone they are not forgotten by us, and generations to come will read of them on our walls. We will remember them and give thanks to God for their lives and service,” said Gomes.