A Lifetime of AchievementThe Columbia Heritage Collection
Evelyn C. Smith, Student days
In 1911 a young Wisconsin woman began an education that would challenge her life and ultimately shape her destiny. Evelyn C. Smith, the daughter of a Great Lakes fisherman, entered Columbia College of Nursing two days after graduating from high school. Her interest in nursing stemmed from the favorable impression she gained as a young girl watching the immaculate presence of an RN caring for her newborn sister in the family’s Port Washington home.
Choosing a college to begin her nursing studies had everything to do with the name “Columbia”. “I was born during the time of the Columbia Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893,” Evelyn Smith said. “My grandmother was caught up in the excitement of that international event, So when I came along, she gave me the middle name of “Columbia”. Naturally when the time came, I went to Columbia College. It had a familiar ‘ring’ to it.”
Smith entered Columbia College an accomplished cook from the years of helping her mother prepare food for the fishermen that worked for her father, Captain Delos H. Smith. Beginning her training as a “probie” in the Hospital’s kitchen, Smith quickly adapted and excelled at her tasks. “I was good at what I did,” Smith said, “but when they kept me three extra months in the kitchen I wished I wasn’t so good.”
In later days, during another phase of Smith’s training at the College, a chance encounter set the stage for an important professional nursing opportunity after her graduation. “I was working in an area of the College where Mr. Fred Sivyer, the President of Columbia Hospital, was visiting. Mr. Sivyer was planning to join the nursing students for dinner that Saturday evening at the College,” Smith said. “He happened to turn and ask me what kind of meal he would be having? It was a meal I wasn’t particularly respectful of I guess and when I told him he would be having pork and beans, ‘just like the rest of us’ it must have caught him by surprise. I think he was amused, I don’t know. But a funny thing happened after that. We were never served pork and beans on Saturday nights again.”
After graduation in 1914, Smith registered with the American Red Cross before beginning her professional work as a night supervisor at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
Within three months of this time an unexpected call would prompt Smith to move onto another phase of her nursing career. Mr. Fred Sivyer, who also happened to be President of Northwestern Malleable Iron Company, asked Smith to join Northwestern as company nurse. Smith accepted the position, and in doing so made history, becoming the first graduate industrial nurse in the city of Milwaukee.
World events would soon overtake many lives including Smith’s, as World War I began. The War Department directed the Red Cross to begin mobilizing large scale medical efforts that would take shape overseas as field hospitals, capable of handling up to a thousand injured soldiers at any given time.
Resigning her position at Northwestern, Smith joined the ranks of women from across the country who responded to the Red Cross’ call for help.
On June 4th, 1918, after spending months assembling, preparing, and finally transporting tons of medical supplies, Base Hospital No. 22 of Milwaukee left New York harbor for what was to become a difficult fourteen day journey to Liverpool, England.
“Our ship, the ‘Baltic, was part of a convoy of ten ships that sailed that day,” Smith said. “Two days prior to our departure from New York it was reported in the papers that twelve ships had been torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats off the coast of New Jersey.” As a measure of precaution the convoy’s departure was shrouded in secrecy and its course was plotted far from the typical ocean routes used in peacetime, noted Smith. Protected by a heavy fog for a portion of their journey, the convoy had reached the cold North Atlantic when news arrived by wireless that another ship leaving New York harbor had been attacked by a German submarine just four days after their own departure. “It was a grim experience, filled with uncertainty and tension,” Smith said. “We began to understand what lay ahead for us.”
1911c - Student days at Columbia College, Wisconsin; Evelyn C. Smith (extreme right) notes that the student in black was a "rascal" prone to contrary behavior.