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AUTHORS:  Phoebe Pollitt and Camille Reese

Jane Renwick Smedburg Wilkes: North Carolina Nurse Pioneer

Citation: Pollitt, PA & Reese, CN (Spring, 1999). Jane Renwick Smedburg Wilkes: North Carolina Nurse Pioneer. American Association for the History of Nursing Bulletin, #62.

Prior to the Civil War, in North Carolina, as in most other states, the lives of most white women were restricted to domestic duties. Women were legally barred from voting, owning property, attending state supported colleges, and engaging in most professions. Few women were active in the political or economic affairs of the day (Scott 1991, Faust 1996). War, it has been said, is the great liberator of women. This was surely the case for middle and upper class white women in N.C. during and after the Civil War.

When men went off to fight and die, women went to work to support soldiers and the war effort. Some women became teachers and nurses. Many women took over jobs formerly held by men. They managed plantations, became journalists, and some disguised themselves as men so they could join the military (Faust, 1996). For the first time, N.C. women in large numbers were organizing themselves into groups such as the Ladies Aid Society and the Soldiers Aid Society.

At the outbreak of the war, there was no equipment ready to care for the sick. The people of N.C. had not taken care…to prepare for war in a time of peace (Wyche 1938). Many basic services taken for granted today had not even come into practice. Sanitation practices were crude. Few standard medications were available. Overcrowded, unsanitary hospitals lacking adequate food, bedding, and medicines were ill-equipped to meet the needs of thousands of sick and wounded soldiers (Anderson 1926, Wyche 1938).

Under those circumstances, a few N.C. women volunteered their services, time, money, and supplies to lessen the pain and suffering of the soldiers. In addition to traditional nursing duties, such as preparing meals, feeding patients, bathing patients, and performing housekeeping duties, many women also learned new skills in administration, finance, and public relations (Faust 1996, Scott 1991). One of those women was Jane Renwick Smedburg Wilkes.

Jane Renwick Smedburg was born on November 22, 1827 in New York City. She was the seventh of thirteen children. Her family had accumulated great wealth through her father’s shipping business. The family had many servants, including maids, cooks, governesses, and gardeners. Jane was well-educated, beginning school at the age of four. In 1854, Jane married her first cousin, John Wilkes. Together, they moved to Charlotte, N.C., then a small, backwater community (Wilkes, 1903).

In the last half of the 1850s, John Wilkes bought and managed a flour mill, an iron mill, and a cotton mill. During that same time period, Jane was busy with child rearing. Her interest in health care was apparent in a letter that she received in 1857, from her Aunt Gertrude. In response to Jane’s concerns about immunizing one of her children, presumably against smallpox, her Aunt Gertrude wrote:

“Learning through your mother of your troubles with your baby as to vaccination, I have procured some from my doctor which he has been so kind as to give, and recommend as most excellent – was taken from the arm of a fine, healthy child, which was vaccinated with the same as my baby – you must turn a small plate upside down, lay the matter on it, and moisten with the tiniest drop of water. Then rub it soft with a knife, make the incision, and put it on. I am thus particular, because I do not know whether you have a physician near, you can do it yourself perfectly…” (Wilkes 1903).

John and Jane Wilkes enslaved over 30 individuals, most of whom worked in the mills. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Jane’s family in Charlotte remained loyal to their new state by supporting the Confederacy. As was common during the war, the Wilkes family was divided over their loyalties. Jane had two brothers fighting for the Union and John’s father gave money and supplies to the Union cause (Wilkes 1903).

Although Charlotte was spared as a scene of battle during the Civil War because of its location as a railroad junction and its relatively safe location, many wounded soldiers were shipped there for care. The Confederacy established two kinds of hospitals: wayside hospitals and later more permanent and larger military hospitals. Wayside hospitals were a combination [of both an] infirmary and [a] travelers aid station for wounded soldiers traveling home from the battle front (Anderson 1926, Wyche 1938). These hospitals were described as “hurriedly constructed along the line of the railroads …usually maintained by volunteer contributions. They were hastily equipped with medical supplies and crude operating tables.” Charlotte was the site of both a wayside hospital, established in July 1862, and a military hospital, established in 1863 and housed in the converted D.H. Hill’s Military Institute (Greenwood 1994).

Jane Wilkes, along with other women from Charlotte, formed the Ladies Hospital Association. It was dedicated to “ministering to the comforts and necessities of those who have gone to defend our rights on the tented fields” (Greenwood 1994). While taking care of her own growing family, Jane spent considerable time nursing sick and wounded soldiers at both hospitals (Kratt, 1992).

The conditions and mortality rate at the Confederate hospitals were appalling. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, shortages of food, medicine, blankets, and supplies caused undue suffering and death. Throughout her experience as a Civil War nurse, Jane was “discouraged but undaunted”, and became convinced of the good a “proper” hospital could do (Coley 1977). Wilkes wrote very little about her experiences. In 1903, in a brief family-centered autobiography she wrote for her children, she recalled her Civil War days:

“All through the years 1861-1865 the war went on. Friends and neighbors were involved, death and disasters were frequent. All this time too, the women at home worked in Aid Societies, Hospital Associations, and every way women could help – knitting, sewing, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick – and in all I bore a part. My family of little children, and my Jeanie’s state of health, and your father’s absences buying corn and wheat and then building the R.R. kept me at home and prevented as active participation as I would have liked, but in all the records of those days I find my name was entered” (Wilkes 1903).

After the War was over, Wilkes resumed her roles of wife, mother, and hostess. Nearly a decade after the Confederate hospital closed its doors, the Wilkes’ pastor, Benjamin S. Bronson, the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, preached a sermon urging his congregation to establish a hospital for the under-privileged of Charlotte (Morrill 1978). Mrs. Hamilton Jones, a leading member of the church at the time, recalled Reverend Bronson was “restless under the feeling that his church was not doing its duty ministering to its fellow man…Many thought his suggestion a wild experiment and it created much merriment in town…people said “What do we want with these sick folks, and why create a nuisance by collecting them in a bunch?” (Wilkes 1903). Still fresh in that generation’s memory was the horrible suffering from gangrene and other infections and the terrible death rate among the sick and wounded soldiers in the Charlotte Confederate Hospital during the war (Van Landingham, 1931).

Jane Wilkes, along with most of the women of St. Peter’s, was a member of the Church Aid Society. In 1875, the Church Aid Society spent about $100,000 “assisting the sick and needy of the Parish, and others connected with it, supplying nurses, medicine and food in their homes” (Greenwood, 1994). Reverend Bronson’s sermon concerning the need for a hospital must have touched Wilkes’ heart. She soon was elected president of the Church Aid Society and worked to expand its mission to open the first civilian hospital in N.C. By law and custom, that hospital only admitted white patients. Wilkes was a tireless worker for this cause, traveling frequently to New York to solicit funds and equipment for the hospital (Kratt, 1992).

The Church Aid Society was active in local fund raising for the new Charlotte Home and Hospital, as the institution was then called. They produced a tableau in 1875, and held a Society Ball in 1878. Wilkes and her companions also solicited donations from their friends and neighbors in Charlotte (Wyche, 1938). Additionally, Wilkes asked physicians to volunteer their time and money for the new hospital. In an undated letter to a Dr. McCombs, Wilkes wrote, “I wanted to first ask if you will be one of the staff of consulting physicians and surgeons for St. Peter’s Hospital [the name adopted by the hospital in the 1880s]…We want to put your name in next to Dr. Brevard’s…Then my second question is – you have several times said you would help us with the fund for furnishing the operating room and drug closet – please let me know what amount you can give us…” (Wilkes, 1903).

The Charlotte Home and Hospital began primarily as a female institution. It was planned by women, funded through public solicitation by women, and staffed and managed by women. Within a month, the group had raised enough money to rent a four-room house, hire a full time cook and nurse, and begin to care for patients. On January 20, 1876, the first two patients were admitted. They were Mrs. Vause, described as a Methodist, and Mrs. Stewart, a Baptist. While there was a cook and a nurse, the 30 or so women of the Church Aid Society assisted the paid staff by bringing in soups and extra food for the “inmates” (patients), and found themselves “often holding needles, scissors and instruments for the surgeons…” (Morrill, 1978; Coley, 1977).

The prejudice against hospitals predicted after Reverend Bronson’s sermon soon appeared. Several early patients were forcibly brought in by police after refusing advice from their doctors and families to voluntarily enter. Neighbors living close to the hospital feared contagion from all the sick people being brought into their midst. Some neighbors threatened to shoot into the building (Van Landingham, 1931; Church, 1936).

Fortunately, many more residents of Charlotte welcomed and supported the new hospital than resented it. Wilkes, after serving as president of the Church Aid Society for a year, served as the secretary/treasurer for the next 29 years. She kept detailed minutes and accounts related to the hospital (Morrill 1978, Van Landingham 1931). For instance, the records of 1899 show 171 patients were admitted for 3876 cumulative days. Of those, 89 patients paid in full or in part for their 1803 days of care. The bills for 20 patients who stayed 538 days as a group were paid for by the city, and 62 patients totaling 1508 aggregate days were charity cases for which the hospital received no direct reimbursement. Wilkes kept records of religious affiliation, diagnosis, surgical procedures, as well as method of payment. The 1899 statistics show the following affiliations of the 171 patients: Methodist 47, Baptist 38, Presbyterian 30, Episcopalian 18, Lutheran 7, Associated Reform Presbyterian 5, Catholic 3, Hebrew 1, and no church affiliation 22. The five most common diagnoses for that year were alcoholism 22, typhoid fever 17, malaria 13, diarrhea 8 and cystitis 7.

In addition to patient information, Wilkes recorded donations given to the hospital. Donations were too numerous to list for any given year. In 1893, some donated items were three dozen bandages, 6 surgical aprons, 4 pair of drawers from the Women’s Auxiliary of Leakesville; the city of Charlotte gave 6000 bricks toward construction of an addition to the hospital; G.S. Hall gave half a dozen partridges; the P. B. Key Company of Statesville gave a gallon of whiskey and the Southern Express Railroad delivered it for free (Morrill, 1978).

Advances in the understanding of biological sciences, medicine, surgery, nutrition, and sanitation in the decades around the turn of the 20th century increased the value of the knowledge and services health care providers and institutions offered the public. The days when the very idea of a hospital was treated with “merriment” were over. Population growth, coupled with the increasingly known benefits derived from professional nursing, created a need for a nursing school in Charlotte. As Wilkes recalled in 1898, “Calls for trained nurses have become so frequent that the hospital must try to fill the requirement” (Church 1936). Wilkes and other nurses…dedicated time, money, and energy so the next generation of nurses could have the benefits of an organized comprehensive academic and clinical training program. In that spirit, the St. Peter’s Hospital School of Nursing opened in Charlotte in October 1899 with 10 students. In January 1902, Susan Mott, Effie Ellen McNeill, and Alicia Anna Powers became the first three of the thousands of graduates who benefited from attending the nursing school (Strong, 1929).

In 1904, at the age of 77, Jane Wilkes resigned after serving 29 years as Secretary/Treasurer of the Board of Managers of St. Peter’s Hospital. The Board of Managers passed a resolution that read in part “… the position that the hospital has attained in our City and State is a lasting monument more durable than granite or marble, to the untiring efforts [that] Mrs. Wilkes has exerted on its behalf ever since its inception, in which she was an active participant and prime mover” (Church, 1936).

Although Wilkes had owned slaves and had supported the ideals of the Confederacy, she also worked to improve the healthcare provided to the sick African Americans of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Wilkes spearheaded the effort to establish a hospital for blacks in Charlotte. Greenwood (1994), discusses her role: “In 1882 veteran reformer Jane Wilkes, a former Confederate hospital nurse, founder of the Charlotte Home and Hospital, and member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, began collecting funds from northern Episcopal congregations for a black hospital. In 1888, she had raised enough money to purchase a lot on Hill Street in the Third Ward, and in December 1888, she had the cornerstone laid for the hospital. Three years later the hospital opened. Although the funds for establishing Good Samaritan seem to have come almost exclusively from whites, the black residents of Charlotte played a key role in administering the hospital.” The laying of the cornerstone was a major cause for celebration for blacks in the Charlotte area. According to a local newspaper, a procession left St. Michael’s, a black Episcopal church in Charlotte, at 3:00 in the afternoon. It was led by a black Masonic fraternity, followed by clergy of both races. Then the dignitaries of the city came, including Dr. Mattoon, the President of Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith University), Mayor McDowell, and Captain and Mrs. Wilkes. The cornerstone was laid with full Masonic Rites. There were prayers and speeches welcoming this needed new addition to Charlotte (Huffman, 1985).

Wilkes was an active member of the Board of Governors of Good Samaritan Hospital. She solicited funds, encouraged the founding of the nursing school in 1902 (the second school open to blacks in the state) and encouraged white doctors and pharmacists to donate their time and supplies to keep Good Samaritan operational (Wilkes 1903).

Jane Wilkes died in her adopted home of Charlotte in 1913. Her tireless work as a nurse, both at the bedside in the Wayside Hospital, Confederate Hospital, and St. Peter’s Hospital, and as an administrator instrumental in founding two hospitals and helping establish two schools of nursing, assured her place in the hearts of many residents of Charlotte. A portion of her obituary in the Charlotte Evening Times states, “Never in the history of the church and seldom in the history of the city has there been such a gathering. The rich and the poor, white and black, came together to pay the tribute of appreciation, or gratitude as the case may be, to this great woman” (Great, 1913).

Wilkes contributed much to the advance of nursing in N.C. At a time when many women did not consider nursing a respectable profession, Wilkes rolled up her sleeves and went to work. During the Civil War, she nursed, fed, and cleaned wounded men. At a time when few women were speaking out and acting confidently in the public domain, she volunteered time and money to help indigent and minority patients. She organized women’s groups to be active participants in finding solutions to the problems of their day. Wilkes was perhaps most unusual for her interracial work. The last decades of the 19th century saw a rise in the number of lynchings, discrimination, and the “Jim Crow” laws across the south. In this climate, Wilkes worked with and on behalf of fellow citizens suffering from the effects of racism.

Both of the hospitals Wilkes helped to establish, St. Peter’s and Good Samaritan, have been closed, incorporated into the Charlotte Hospital Authority in 1940 and 1961, (Huffman, 1985; Morrill, 1978). Her legacy, however, lives on through the newer, larger hospitals and through the many graduates of the nursing schools she helped establish: They continue to practice and…have established new health care institutions and have taught new generations of nurses, both black and white, who today work to cure sicknesses and alleviate the sufferings of their fellow North Carolinians.

Reprinted with permission from the American Association for the History of Nursing Bulletin.

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