Preserving Our Past, Capitalizing on the Present, Embracing the Future

Miss Alice Kemmer's "Golden Deed1"

© Constance J. Moore
Colonel, ANC (Retired), ANCA Historian

Alice circa the 1900sThroughout the country in October 1902, newspapers and periodicals sang the praises of Miss2 Alice Kemmer, an Army nurse who was summoned to Washington to receive a special commendation for her unselfish care of two patients who had contracted smallpox in the Philippines. The Saturday Evening Post commended in highly romantic terms, "In an age of materialism, when at times it seems as if the world forgot many cardinal virtues and was only interested in gaining its own selfish end, every once in a while some humble person ... shows the spirit of knighthood still exists."3

Alice Kemmer had always been a person who enjoyed a challenge and wanted to see the world. Born on February 26, 1874, in Morgan County, Ohio, Kemmer attended nursing school at the Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. With the threat of war between the United States and Spain, in 1898, she volunteered as a contract nurse to care for the ill and injured soldiers. Kemmer was one of the few nurses who worked at multiple military hospitals in the United States and Cuba during this conflict. Because of the strength and resilience demonstrated by her and other contract nurses, the Army Nurse Corps was established on 2 February 1901. Kemmer holds the distinction of being one of the first women appointed to serve in the military when she was selected as a charter member of the ANC.

For her first assignment as an Army nurse, Miss Kemmer traveled halfway around the world to China in support of Army forces under General Adna Chaffee during the China Relief Expedition. Kemmer described for her family how incredibly busy she was nursing multiple patients ravaged by viral pneumonia.4 She also helped to establish base hospitals in Tientsin and Peking.

Kemmer’s next job was at the military’s largest and busiest facility, the First Reserve Hospital, in Manila. This was arduous and difficult duty as described by another nurse, Miss Marjorie Henshaw, "There has been no let up ... it has been go, go from early morning till late at night ... nurses are needed, every one, in the hospital. [For example] nurses [were] in the surgical wards, receiving the wounded from the 'firing line' [surgery]: and [only] one [nurse managed a busy] Officers Ward of the 27 beds."5

Having worked nonstop for nearly four years, Kemmer requested and was granted a leave of absence in March 1902. Just as she was ready to depart, the Commander asked for one volunteer to nurse two patients, who came down with aggressive form of smallpox. Fearing an epidemic, hospital administrators decided to open the hospital’s isolation building to house the two infected patients, one enlisted soldier and an officer’s wife, and their caregiver. Voluntarily relinquishing her leave, Miss Kemmer answered the call. Kemmer moved her billet to the isolation unit, occupying the same room as the officer’s wife. The ill soldier was in the next room.

State of the art nursing care at the turn of the 20th century revolved around proper asepsis and creating a routine for the patients. Kemmer organized the care in such a way that a calm, quiet, and clean atmosphere was created. Throughout the April and May, despite a period of intense heat, she wore mask, gown and rubber gloves to care for the patients. She ensured that they were well hydrated and given a high caloric, high protein diet. Their weeping lesions were cleaned and dressed each day with carbolic acid. Everyday, she burned any medical and human waste; mopped the floors and washed linen and towels in a weak carbolic liquid. As her charges got better, she monitored their sores and told them again and again not to scratch so they would not be badly disfigured. When the first of June came, both patients had recovered and were discharged. The smallpox epidemic was averted largely due to the effort of one nurse, Miss Alice Kemmer.

When General Chaffee read the report about the situation, he was impressed by Miss Kemmer’s nursing skills, and moreso about the fact that she had no immunity to the disease. Kemmer had never before been exposed to the disease nor had she been vaccinated. Today we might call her foolhardy, back then she was called courageous. The Saturday Evening Post opined, "The example that [Kemmer] set will be an inspiration to men and women ... who sometimes grow weary under the hear and burden of the day."6

  1. ________________The Suburban Citizen, November 1 1902.
  2. The common form of address was “Miss” since Army nurses did not hold rank and were not allowed to marry.
  3. ________________“Heroism of T-Day,” Saturday Evening Post, 175 (September, 1902): 47.
  4. ________________“Love is Living Large: Alice Kemmer Moore,” LA History Archive, (Accessed on July 30 2012).
  5. ________________“Caring for the Soldiers,” Evening Star, July 14, 1899.
  6. ________________“Heroism of T-Day,” Saturday Evening Post, 175 (September, 1902): 47.