Sisters of Mercy and Survival: Armenian Nurses, 1900-1930
By Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill
“Richard and Tina Carolan” Literary Fund
Reviewed by Karin Saghdejian
A 1921 photograph of Armenian nurses at Annie Tracy Riggs (ATR) Memorial Hospital in Mezireh (present-day Elazig, Turkey) and a childhood memory of an April 24 commemoration in Hamilton, Ontario, compelled historian Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill to write her latest book Sisters of Mercy and Survival: Armenian Nurses, 1900-1930.
Published in 2012 in Antelias, Lebanon, the book focuses on the role of Armenian nurses in Western-run medical institutions in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East before and after World War I.
The book is also a detailed research of the formation and operation of the American hospital networks and nurse training schools in the various provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. It’s a rare study that aims to shine light on the dedicated work of the Armenian pioneer nurse generation, the unsung heroes of a nation who toiled tirelessly in these medical facilities at times of great catastrophe.
Using documents in 5 languages from more than 15 archives in North America, Europe, Armenia, and the Middle East, Kaprielian-Chuchill sets the historical framework in which the Western medical institutions were established, and gives details of their operations together with the relief efforts of the Armenian charitable organizations.
Kaprielian-Churchill dates Armenian medical practice back to medieval times with Mkhitar Heratsi, and through the 18th and 19th centuries when Western-educated Armenian doctors were the sultan’s personal physicians and brought the newest practices to the Ottoman Empire. Well before the missionaries started their clinics, Armenians built hospitals and recruited Armenian women to serve as nurses, a remarkable progress compared to the Turkish women who started Western-style training only in late 1920’s.
She elaborates on the system of hospitals, clinics, and training schools Western missionaries built in the provinces and their role in advancing medicine within the empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hospitals flourished in Aintab (the Azariah Smith hospital), in Mezireh (ATR), in Van, Marsovan, Sepastia, and Marash.
One of the results of the spread of missionary hospitals was the need for nurses. Armenian women were widely recruited and trained in general medicine and especially in midwifery according to the most advanced Western practices and methodologies. She concludes that the missionary medical workers together with Armenian medical professionals planted the roots of a modern healthcare system in the Ottoman Empire.
In a cruel twist of fate, these very health facilities and medical personnel were forced to serve the Turkish war machine during World War I and, later, the survivors of the ensuing genocide.
Amid war, the American charitable initiative Near East Relief (NER) emerged to provide emergency food, shelter and medical services to thousands of Armenian orphans and refugees. Armenian nurses once again were destined to play a critical role in NER hospitals and orphanages in Sivas, Aintab, Aleppo, and Kharpert. Digging in the NER archives, Kaprielian-Churchill elaborates on the types of medical services offered and the many cases treated in these hospitals
The huge concentration of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, coupled with the influx of what remained of the Armenian population in Turkey as a result of Kemalist nationalist purges of 1920-24, rendered the new nation of Armenia virtually destitute. Kaprielian-Churchill recounts the tremendous amount of NER relief resources that went towards containing the epidemics and sheltering the orphans in Armenia. Perhaps NER’s most instrumental role was evacuating an estimated 22,000 Armenian orphans from Turkey between 1920 and 1923.
After the war, another American organization, American Women’s Hospital (AWH), arrived in Turkey, the Caucasus, and Greece, and played a huge role in sheltering and treating the post-genocide-era survivors, especially women and children. Between 1923 and 1933, AWH established medical facilities and nurse training schools in Armenia and in Greece, where as many as 100,000 Armenian refugees were admitted. Kaprielian-Churchill gives detailed accounts of AWH hospitals in Salonica, Kokkinia, and Dirgouti, where tens of thousands of tortured Armenian women and orphaned children received medical care.
Kaprielian-Churchill observes that genocide fundamentally changed the traditional attitudes towards nursing. It was no longer a degrading, menial job but essential work for the survival of what remained of the Armenian nation. Nurse training programs began again in ATR in Mezireh and in Gyumri’s Winchester training school for nurses, which she considers the first Western-style training school in Armenia.
Alongside the American medical facilities in the region, she singles out three hospitals that practiced advanced medicine, and where Armenian women were a major component of the medical staff: Holy Saviour (Sourp Pergich) Hospital in Constantinople, the private Altounyan Hospital in Aleppo (which had a nurse training program and the only X-ray machine in the entire Ottoman Empire), and the Syrian Protestant College of Beirut (later American University of Beirut, where the nursing program was established in 1905 with two Armenians nurses as its first graduates).
Kaprielian-Churchill also spotlights the work of Armenian humanitarian organizations, namely the Armenian Red Cross (later Armenian Relief Society), Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), and for a period the Hai Bedagan Khach (leftist pro-Soviet charity), as the main agents of national relief work during and after the genocide. She tracks the interesting facts of their early formation at the beginning of the 20th century with their many chapters and affiliates in North America, England, and the Middle East. She goes into great length detailing their assistance in refugee-filled Aleppo and famine- and epidemic-stricken Armenia.
The emergence of the Armenian Red Cross and AGBU, which even attempted to amalgamate in North America in 1921, in times of national crisis legitimized them in the eyes of the nation. When all the pre-war structures had collapsed, they acted as essential agents of social and medical services, she concludes.
At the end of the book, Kaprielian-Churchill gives short bios of the Armenian nurses at ATR, the most advanced nursing school in the Ottoman Empire, who played a fundamental role in establishing and advancing Western-style nursing in the region and hence became pioneers in the field.
The 12 chapters of the book are punctuated with a compilation of rare and telling historical photos of the hospitals, patients, nurses, doctors, and orphanages. As the author intends, they form a photographic album telling the story of the nursing experience of Armenian women.
The volume is a valuable study that brings back to life the countless hardworking Armenian women—often left in oblivion—who played a major role during a critical juncture in the history of the nation.