This post was written by guest contributor and University Archivist, Kevin Leonard.
Under a dark and threatening sky, representatives of Northwestern University Libraries, midshipmen and officers from Northwestern’s Naval ROTC unit, and distinguished guests marked the centennial of America’s entry into World War I with a solemn commemoration on May 20, 2017. With a formal presentation of the colors, remarks pertinent to the occasion, and a bugler playing the National Anthem and Taps, the Northwestern group assembled at Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery by the grave of Helen Burnett Wood, who died in a friendly-fire accident on May 20, 1917. Wood, who was killed alongside colleague Edith Ayres, was a nurse with U.S. Army Base Hospital 12, a medical unit staffed largely by Northwestern University students, faculty, staff, and alumni. At the time of their deaths, Wood and Ayres were in transit to France, for service behind the front lines.
Born in Scotland in 1888, Helen Wood made her way to the United States in 1905, settling upon arrival at the Evanston home of a relative. She afterward enrolled in the Evanston Hospital School of Nursing, a course of study affiliated with Northwestern University, and took her nursing diploma from that program in 1914. After graduation, Wood accepted employment at Evanston Hospital and became an admired, even beloved, member of the hospital’s staff. After America’s declaration of war in April, 1917, Wood volunteered her services with Base Hospital 12, then organizing at Chicago under the direction of Dr. Frederick Besley, a faculty member of the Northwestern University Medical School. One of Wood’s brothers, serving in the British army during the war, had been killed earlier, at the Battle of Gallipoli. Another brother was wounded in combat in France. Helen Wood was quoted as stating that if her brothers could risk their lives for Britain, she could risk hers for the United States.
Staff of Base Hospital 12 assembled at Evanston on May 16, made their way downtown, and traveled by rail from Chicago to New York City. There they boarded the S.S. Mongolia, a passenger ship hastily refitted with three deck guns for wartime service, which headed to open sea on the May 19. One day out, the Mongolia’s crew held gunnery practice before onlookers from the Base Hospital staff, assembled on the ship’s main deck. Due to faulty ordnance and questionable gunnery protocols practiced by crews rushed into military service, shrapnel blasting from the muzzle of one of the guns struck Wood and Ayres, killing them instantly. The Mongolia turned back to New York to return the dead and the fatal accident quickly became a national news story. The bodies of the nurses, received in New York with reverent ceremony, were sent via railroad to their home communities: Edith Ayers to Attica, Ohio, and Helen Wood to Evanston.
Funeral services for Wood were held at Evanston’s First Presbyterian Church. Saluted by hundreds from Great Lakes Naval Station, observed by representatives of Northwestern University and Evanston Hospital, and with friends and dignitaries in attendance, Helen Wood was laid to rest at Rosehill Cemetery on May 26, 1917.
Helen Wood and Edith Ayres were the first females associated with a United States unit to be killed in World War I. They appear to have been the first individuals, representing a fully American outfit, to lose their lives in the Great War. Given where Wood had made her home in the United States, she was the first Evanstonian to die in that war. Now, a century removed from her death and gathered on behalf of both Northwestern and the local community, we placed a wreath of flowers on Ms. Wood’s grave, thanking her for her service. A similar wreath has been sent to Attica, Ohio, for placement on Memorial Day at the grave of Edith Ayres.