Two ladies sitting together on rocks, one with her arm around the other.

Seeking Leek Island: A Personal Journey

By Aliya Rahman ~

The 1918 scrapbook I wrote about in Seeking Leek Island: A Place of Healing reveals Leek Island Military Hospital as a little community in a beautiful setting, that fostered rehabilitation and strong friendships. The scrapbook opens a window onto some of these friendships, giving us insight into roles and personalities.

Photograph of people on rocks at the edge of the water.However, there is one special person we see very little about—the scrapbooker. Remarkably, there is no bookplate, byline, or signature of any sort anywhere in the scrapbook, and while the unnamed scrapbooker often speaks in the first person, declaring that Flora “was my room-mate for a while” or describing how Peg was sitting “on the edge of our tent,” she, or he, never once reveals their name.

I investigated this mystery. I began with the assumptions that the author was a woman (as she had a roommate named Flora) and was a nurse (as almost all of the women on the island were nurses). The first image I came upon that seemed to include the scrapbooker is captioned, “Me and the orderlies.” Unfortunately, everyone in this image is turned away from the camera, not a single face visible in the shot. The appearance of the scrapbooker still remained a mystery.

After continuing to read the scrapbook carefully, another image of the scrapbooker appears many pages later. This time, fortunately, it is a very clear one, a close up of two women captioned, “Flora and me on the rocks.”

Two ladies sitting together on rocks, one with her arm around the other..

Finding Flora

The problem was, it was unclear which woman was which. So, I studied the book and identified every image containing “Flora.” Many of these images are fuzzy, but after examining multiple, I ended up with a good sense of what Flora looked like.

Seeking Her Face

Then I went back to the original close-up photo of the two women, and through the process of elimination, decided that the one on the left, grinning gloriously with Flora’s arm draped around her, was our scrapbooker.

A detail from a photograph of a young woman's face.So, I finally knew what she looked like—but it wasn’t enough. I wanted a name.

Seeking Her Name

At the end of the scrapbook, the scrapbooker had pasted various newspaper clippings about Leek Island. Eventually I found a clipping that excited me a great deal. It was a photo of all the members of the Leek Island Hospital staff, complete with a caption that listed their individual names from left to right.

Newspaper photo of Leek Island Hospital staff.

Somewhere in that photo was the mystery scrapbooker, meaning somewhere in that caption had to be her name. However, after reading through the first few names listed, my original excitement diminished. I realized that, back then, any married woman would formally be called the name of her husband, for example “Mrs. Alfred C. Benedict.” Considering the fact that a handful of these women seemed to be married, it suddenly made things much more complicated. Not that it mattered, though. Upon further investigation, I realized that the photo was much too fuzzy for me to make out any of the faces anyway. So, I wouldn’t have been able to match a name to a face even if their true, full names were there as I had hoped.

I took advantage of the fact that I had a definitive list of the entire hospital staff, though. I remembered that whoever created this scrapbook probably would not have written her own name in the earlier, handwritten captions, as she tended to slip into first person very freely. I realized it’s possible that the name of the scrapbooker could be the only name listed in the newspaper caption that appears nowhere else in the scrapbook.

So, I jotted down all the names from the newspaper, then carefully began examining the scrapbook from the beginning once more. Every time a name appeared, I crossed it off on my list. I worried that I’d be left with a lot of names at the end of my examination. I didn’t think it was likely that the scrapbooker would refer to some of these women formally, perhaps there would be too many nicknames. However, I was wrong. I crossed off almost all the names; she referred to many of the women as “Mrs.” contrary to what I expected. In the end, there was only one name left on my list: Mrs. David E. Brenneman.

I went back to the newspaper clippings, and found exactly what I needed. Beside the group photo of the staff was another newspaper clipping, this one an image of a bride and a groom. The caption read “Mr. and Mrs. David E. Brenneman of South Orange County were deep in hospital work: Mrs. Brenneman was formerly Miss Katherine Kip, daughter of Mrs. Runyon. They were married at Leek Island.”

Scrapbook page of three newspaper cutouts.
The page that gave me the scrapbooker’s name: Katherine Brenneman.

There was her name: Katherine Brenneman, formerly Miss Katherine Kip.

However, this wasn’t the same Katherine Kip that owned the island. That was Mrs. Kip, married to Ira A. Jr. Kip. So, who is Mrs. Runyon, the apparent mother of this bride? One clipping contained an image of an older woman speaking to two nurses, sitting on a porch. The caption revealed that she was Mrs. Mefford Runyon, wife of Dr. Mefford Runyon.

Scrapbook page of three newspaper cutouts from Leek Island

The Kip Family

As I discovered, the Kips were a very notable family. In a bulletin published in 1918, it is revealed that Ira A. Kip Jr. was the president of the Duratex Company of New York and in a paper titled “History of the Kip Family in America,” it is written that he was also active in republican politics, and was a delegate to the RNC in 1912. His wife, Katherine Kip, was from a wealthy family, as she was the niece of the famous ex-Governor Flower of New York. Next, I found that not long after the island was volunteered as a hospital, Mr. and Mrs. Kip got divorced and the former Katherine Kip got remarried to Dr. Mefford Runyon shortly thereafter. So, Mrs. Runyon, the apparent mother of Katherine Brenneman, was formerly Katherine Kip as well, and the owner of Leek Island.

After discovering the scrapbooker’s relationship to the Kips, everything began to click into place. She had multiple potential reasons for documenting her experience at Leek Island. The scrapbook, whether she intended this or not, has immortalized her mother’s legacy. Perhaps this was Katherine’s main purpose, but more likely her motives were simpler than this. It’s fair to assume that Leek probably was a place of great significance to Katherine, as it seems that many of her major life events occurred here. This was the place in which she worked, built friendships, and got married. It seems that she wasn’t even the only member of the Kip family to get married on this island. On the second to last page of the scrapbook, there is another newspaper clipping of a wedding, this one between Ira A. Kip 3rd and Miss Flora Reese. At first, I wondered if this was Katherine Brenneman’s father, but no. This wedding, it seems, is significant to her because Ira A. Kip 3rd is her brother and he apparently married her roommate, Flora. So clearly, Katherine had every reason to feel a strong attachment to Leek Island.

Finding out who created this scrapbook was a complicated process, especially since the Kip family had a habit of naming their children after themselves—and yet, it was worth it in the end. Katherine Brenneman deserves to be credited for the humanitarian work she accomplished for those who received care at the Leek Island Military Hospital. And because she kept this scrapbook, and because it has come to rest in the NLM collection, we can preserve and share her story of war, community, love, philanthropy, and Leek Island.

Visit the National Library of Medicine to view this and other photographic collections.  For questions about this album, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support.

Outdoor portait of Aliya RahmanAliya Rahman is a Pathways Intern in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

3 comments

  1. It’s interesting to me that nearly the entire staff comes from a very small area (Essex County) in New Jersey – so likely that they were all friends/family of the Kips/Runyons.

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