Travels of a World War I Nurse

By Dan Caughey

Photograph postcards, known as “real photo” postcards, were popular mementos to send to loved ones before and during World War I. There are dozens of examples in NLM’s collection of nursing postcards, which are highlighted in Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, an exhibition that explores nursing history by examining depictions of nurses in a selection of postcards that spans the 20th century. Real photo postcards had grown in popularity in the years leading up to World War I, after Kodak began selling a camera that could print a photo on postcard stock in 1903. Real photo postcards were an affordable way for people to send messages and images to friends and family.

A postcard featuring a woman in a dark suit and hat posed against a drawing of an outdoor setting.

Postcard featuring Taletta Haraldson, ca. 1918
National Library of Medicine #D05877

The woman in this real photo postcard is Taletta Haraldson, a newly-minted nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. While many used picture postcards as vehicles for messages, Haraldson’s postcard seems to have served solely as a keepsake of her early days as a nurse, as the postcard was never mailed and has no message on its back.

Eighty two people, posed outdoors in 5 rows. Nurses in uniform, white caps and aprons and dark capes.

Nursing Personnel at U.S. Army Base Hospital No.88, Langres, France, ca. 1918
National Library of Medicine #A06090

Haraldson was one of the over 21,000 nurses who enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I, and one of 10,000 who were sent to work in French hospitals. Born in Clay County, Iowa to Norwegian immigrant parents, Haraldson volunteered in January 1918 as a 30-year-old graduate of the Swedish Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis. Upon enlisting, she was assigned to Fort Des Moines in Iowa for a short time, before being sent to Base Hospital 88 near Langres in eastern France. Her trans-Atlantic voyage on The Aquatania embarked from New York City in August. She had this picture postcard made at the photo studio of Rudolph Bachmann, located at 6 E 14th St., while she spent time in New York.

For Army Corps nurses, war service was difficult and uncomfortable. Haraldson and her colleagues treated shrapnel wounds, infections, mustard gas burns, exposure, and medical and emotional trauma. They faced bad weather and water shortages, long work hours and little privacy or time off. Haraldson worked in these conditions for over a year, splitting her time between Base Hospitals 88 and 53, where she earned a French citation. She remained in France until July 1919, when she returned to the United States.

In a wooden building with a wood stove, female nurses stand behind men in white aprons seated accross from patients.

The eye, ear, and nose clinic at Base Hospital 88, ca. 1918
National Library of Medicine #A06071

After the war, Haraldson served another 18 years in the Army Nurse Corps, being stationed throughout the United States and its territories, including Guam and the Philippines. Haraldson was well-traveled outside of her military duty, as well. She made her way through Asia, Europe, and Africa during a four-month furlough. Her last post was at Fort Riley, KA, where she retired in 1937 at the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. That same year, she moved back to Iowa and married a widower with four children. She died in 1958 at the age of 70.

Haraldson’s story mirrors that of many young, intrepid, middle class women of her era who were afforded the opportunity to see the world and serve humanity through nursing.

In April, the History of Medicine Division launched the traveling adaptation of Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection. This post delved deeper into the story behind one of the more than 550 postcards featured in the digital gallery of the online exhibition. Pictures of Nursing, the traveling adaptation, is touring libraries and cultural institutions around the country. To see the exhibition in person, check it out at a venue near you!

This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

Portrait of Dan Caughey with bookshelves in the background.

Dan Caughey is an exhibition coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.