Helen Wood

The United States had been at war for less than two months when Evanston received reports that one of its residents, Helen Burnett Wood, a Red Cross nurse, had been killed on board the S.S. Mongolia. The ship, loaded with American medical personnel, had been on its way to France.

At the time of her death, Wood had been living in Evanston for several years, training and later working at the Evanston Hospital. She was born in 1888 in Portobello, Scotland, where her parents and several siblings still lived. She was the oldest of three sisters and three brothers. Before the war, she immigrated to the U.S and settled in Evanston. She worked as a telephone operator. But she dreamed of becoming a nurse.

Helen Wood. Known as “Nellie.” Collection of the Evanston History Center

She enrolled in a nurses training school attached to Northwestern University. She earned her nursing degree in 1914 and worked at the Evanston Hospital.

By 1917, the war had taken a heavy toll on the Wood family: Helen’s brother, William Wood, served with the 5th Royal Scots. He was killed in action on June 28, 1915, at Gallipoli. Another brother, Johnson, was seriously wounded and did not survive.

As these tragedies befell her family, Wood was far from home. Upon the U.S. entry into the war, she wanted to do her part to help those in need, and so she elected to go overseas.

Her sister Annie later told the Chicago Tribune: “I didn’t want Helen to go, but she said if her brothers could risk their lives for Britain, she could risk hers for America.”

Wood was attached to the U.S. Army Base Hospital, No. 12, also known as the Northwestern University Base Hospital, since a majority of its personnel came out of the university.

In the spring of 1917, just a month after the U.S. entered the war, Wood received her official orders to join the Base Hospital staff on its way to New York where the staff would embark for Europe.

On May 20, 1917, one day after the ship set sail from New York, one of the ship’s guns exploded during a practice drill, sending a shower of shell fragments across the deck. Helen Wood and Edith Ayres, two of the 65 nurses on board were killed, and one nurse, Emma Matzen, was wounded. Immediately, the ship turned around and sailed back to port, its flag flying at half staff. These two nurses were among the first Americans to die in World War I.

There was widespread horror and outrage following the accident. Soon, an inquiry was launched. The text of the inquiry can be found here.

Helen Wood’s body was brought back to Chicago:

At Union Station her body was met by a delegation including people from both Chicago and Evanston. It was headed by John W. Scott, Vice president of the Chicago Chapter of the Illinois Branch of the American Red Cross. From the station the body was taken to Helen’s home in Evanston. Friends requested that rather than flowers, donations be sent to her aging parents in Scotland. On Saturday 26 May the coffin was escorted by fifty blue jackets from the Great Lakes Training Center and by fifty automobiles containing representatives of the Red Cross, the medical reserve corps, the city of Evanston, friends and relatives. The somber procession proceeded from her home on Sheridan Road to the First Presbyterian Church. Outside the church stood an honor guard of fifty Red Cross Nurses, fifty students from Northwestern University wearing black gowns and capes, fifty nurses from Evanston Hospital, and twenty-five uniformed members of the Grand Army of the Republic. Clergymen from three different denominations, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist, offered prayers, and the president of the Chicago chapter of the American Red Cross expressed his sympathy.

“Last Rites,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 28, 1917.

Upon news of her death, mourners were asked to donate funds to help her parents. Now, three of their children were gone.

Her funeral was held at Evanston’s First Presbyterian Church. She was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.

Nurses Marching on Davis Street, Funeral March for Helen Wood, Evanston, 1917. They are marching east on Davis, just crossing Maple Ave. The building on the right was 929 Davis, and it housed the dry goods store, A.O. Nicholson. It now houses the Davis Pantry. The building behind them is still extant. Gigio’s Pizzeria is located there today. Photograph from the collections of the Evanston History Center.

At Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh, Scotland, near her family home, a memorial plaque lists Helen Wood’s name. She is listed at the top of the plaque, the only woman. Her brother William is also listed on the very same plaque.

At the outset of the centennials of World War I, her relatives in Scotland began to re-tell her story, proudly, and with awe. You can read about their remembrances of her here.

~ Jenny Thompson, Director of Education, Evanston History Center

Back to:  “Restoration: Profiles of Evanston’s War Dead.”

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