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Vashti Bartlett: The Global Mission of a Hopkins Nurse


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Posted: 1/2/2003

A new exhibit is on display on the School of Nursing’s first floor. Called “Vashti Bartlett – A Hopkins Nurse on a Global Mission,” the exhibit features the incredible work of a School of Nursing alumna who traveled to distant corners of the world in periods of strife and crisis during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Vashti Bartlett, SON ’06, was the hallmark of a Hopkins nurse – well educated in the latest scientific advances, rigorously trained in nursing methodologies, and primed to assume a leadership role in the profession. She was bright, energetic, and full of enthusiasm. Firm of character and physically strong, she had the moral fiber to confront and deal with hardship and the stamina to carry out arduous assignments. An abiding commitment to help the ill, injured, and dispossessed inspired her long and distinguished career.

Vashti Bartlett first embarked upon foreign service in 1908 when she joined Dr. Wilfred Grenfell’s Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen and traveled to Newfound-land where she served on the staff of the mission’s hospital in St. Anthony.

The purpose of the mission was to care for the native population and the fishermen and their families who had settled along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. In this remote and impoverished area, the Grenfell mission offered the only means of health care and aimed to quell the rise of alcoholism, to provide primary health care, and to teach modes of hygiene and prevention of illness to the semi-literate population.

In March 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Bartlett sailed to France with the American Red Cross “Mercy Ship” Expedition.

The destination of her unit was Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees to help care for mounting casualties from the front.

In October 1915, the Red Cross transferred Bartlett to its unit near the front at La Panne, Belgium where she served as director of nursing services.

When the Red Cross nursing units left La Panne in May 1916, Bartlett was assigned to the organization’s national head-quarters in Washington, DC where she worked from May 1917 to August 1918. After the United States entered the war, Bartlett returned to France with the Army Nursing Corps to serve as chief nurse at Base Hospital Unit 71. Assigned to the American Red Cross Mission in Siberia, Bartlett arrived in Vladivostok in 1919 to assist in the care of thousands of refugees who had amassed there. Fleeing the fierce fighting of the Russian Revolution, large groups throughout the Tsarist empire had escaped eastward on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, spilling into the terminus at Vladivostok.

Just as she began her assignment, the Red Cross transferred Bartlett to Manchuria where a cholera epidemic was sweeping the city of Harbin.

Placed in charge of nursing for the affected region, Bartlett used her savvy and deployed her skills to quell the contagion and direct nursing for hundreds who had contracted the disease. Upon returning to Vladivostok, chaos erupted. Having taken control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Bolsheviks advanced upon the city. The Red Cross closed its Siberia mission forcing Bartlett and her colleagues into a hasty departure.

Vashti Bartlett’s last mission for the American Red Cross was to Haiti. In July 1921 she sailed for Port-au-Prince to assume directorship of a nursing school that the US Navy Nurse Corps had initiated at the City General Hospital. The mission of the Red Cross was to train a group of local women to become a force for nursing service on this beautiful but impoverished island.

Shortly after classes began, a smallpox epidemic pressed Bartlett and her students into emergency service. Once again Bartlett took charge of infection control and directed nursing services to the hundreds of patients who had contracted the disease. After helping to halt the epidemic, Bartlett devoted herself to improving the operation of the school.

In 1921 Bartlett resigned and returned to the United States where she continued her career directing a nursing school at an American Indian reservation in Oklahoma.

Vashti Bartlett’s world-wide journey began nearly a century ago, and the School of Nursing continues to educate nurses who, like Bartlett, excel in their willingness to take risks and accept difficult challenges, and to work with the most critical cases and complex populations.

The School’s alumni who have joined humanitarian health missions and served with the military have particularly distinguished themselves through their personal courage, adaptability to difficult circumstances, and skills in crisis management and emergency health care. Also highlighted in the new exhibit is the notable work of other SON alumni, including Alice Fitzgerald, SON ’06, Mary Sanders Price, SON ’34, Ruth Sidisin, SON ’52, Katherine Hopkins, SON ’62, and two recent graduates: Mary Lou Fisher, SON ’96, a nurse practitioner who developed a nursing plan in Kosovo and designed a curriculum for nurses in Afghanistan, and Helen Hui-Chou, SON ’97, a Navy nurse who was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to treat detainees earlier this year.

The Vashti Bartlett exhibit was created by members of the Johns Hopkins Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives and made possible by the support of the Johns Hopkins Nurses’ Alumni Association.