Over 115,000 Americans died in World War I. Slightly more than half of those were deaths from disease. Hundreds of Duluth men were casualties of the war, but only one Duluth military woman gave her life—U.S. Army nurse Lydia Whiteside.*
Lydia V. Whiteside was born on November 3, 1884, in Severn Bridge, a small community in the Muskoka District of Ontario. She was the seventh child of Richard and Ellen Whiteside. Richard was born in Ireland in 1843 and the family moved to Ontario when he was a child. On October 11, 1871, he married Ellen Dyer, a native of Innisfil, Ontario.
Richard was involved in the lumber business in Ontario, and around 1887 he moved to Minnesota, first establishing a homestead on Fall Lake, just a few miles south of Ely. His brother, Robert, who was involved in lumbering and later in iron ore mining, was one of the founders of the town of Ely and was probably there at the time. Later, Richard would move the family into the town of Ely to a house on Harvey Street. In about 1901, they would move to Duluth.
Upon moving to Duluth, Lydia was a student, presumably at the Villa Sancta Scholastica Academy or the Duluth Normal School, which opened in September of 1902. By 1908 she had moved to Minneapolis and was a student nurse at the Asbury Methodist Hospital, which had a nursing training program. On May 24, 1911, she and 13 other women received their nursing certificates from the hospital. She then returned to Duluth and worked as a nurse, living with her family who were now residing at 4409 London Road.In 1917, Lydia volunteered to serve as a nurse with the U.S. Army. The U.S. had declared war on Germany in April of 1917 and on Austria-Hungary that December, thus entering World War I. As part of its preparation for war, the Army was organizing hospital units to serve in Europe and the United States. Lydia signed up with Hospital Unit no. 26, which was organized at the University of Minnesota and was mobilized in December of 1917.
On December 28, 1917, Unit 26 was sent to Ft. McPherson in Georgia for training. It was joined there with another unit from Texas. Then in May the unit was taken by train to the East Coast to be shipped overseas. The nurses traveled to New York City and on June 4, 1918, boarded the ship Baltic. They arrived in Liverpool, England, on June 15 and took a steamer to France the next day, arriving in the port of Le Havre on June 18. After resting that night, they traveled by train to their final destination, the town of Allerey in the department of Saone et Loire in eastern France.
At the time the Minnesota unit arrived on June 20, the camp was still under construction. They wouldn’t receive their first patients until July 23. After that, things picked up quickly. The unit reportedly received about 1,000 casualties in one day in July 1918.
Lydia Whiteside worked as a surgical nurse. She was also assigned to a mobile unit that was sent closer to the front. In a letter home that was reprinted in the Duluth News Tribune of September 29, 1918, she wrote:
Twenty of our Unit 26 were detached temporarily from the rest of the unit, about a week ago, and sent up as near the trenches as it is safe for a mobile hospital to be. The nearest I think than any nurses have ever been sent before.
Lydia’s mother, Ellen Whiteside, had died on September 28, just the day before that letter was printed in the local paper. She had a heart attack while attending a Duluth Liberty Loan Parade as a Red Cross delegate; the parade was held to encourage people to purchase liberty bonds, or war bonds, to support the war effort.
Then, shortly after her mother’s death, Lydia contracted Spanish influenza. Despite its name, the Spanish flu pandemic started in the U.S. and the disease was brought to Europe by American troops. It eventually infected 25 percent of the U.S. armed forces and killed more troops than combat. Those surviving the flu often soon developed bacterial pneumonia, which could then prove fatal. That was the case with Lydia Whiteside. She died on October 21, 1918, in Base Hospital No. 26. In a letter to the family that the Duluth News Tribune printed in its November 26, 1918 issue, nurse and fellow Duluthian Margaret L. Dunlop, on leave from her job as assistant superintendent at St. Luke’s Hospital, described Lydia’s final days:
Everything that human skill could do was done. Major McCrae, of whose kindness I cannot say enough, had all the prominent medical men who came to the camp see her but it was all of no avail. . .The nurses all loved her, as did everyone in the organization. As someone said yesterday: ‘A word of criticism has yet to be said of Miss Whiteside.’ She was a genuine nurse, a true soldier. There is no better over here and it is a pity her career was so short.
She was buried there, in a casket covered with daisies and draped with the American flag. Two other Army nurses from Minnesota also died of the flu in France: Esther Amundsen of Montevideo, and Nora Emelie Anderson of St. Hilaire, a small town in Pennington County in northwestern Minnesota.
In 1919, an American Legion post was formed in Minnesota to honor Lydia. The Lydia V. Whiteside post in Minneapolis was composed entirely of women, more than 100 discharged nurses. It was the second all-female post in the state.
In November of 1921, Lydia Whiteside’s remains were exhumed and shipped back to the U.S. Her body arrived in Duluth on December 20, and a full military funeral was held the next day at First Methodist Church, 215 North 3rd Avenue West. Ten members of the Lydia V. Whiteside post, five of whom served in her unit in France, formed an honor guard. Members of the E. Porter Alexander post of the VFW and the David Wisted post of the American Legion escorted the casket to Forest Hill Cemetery for burial, where a firing squad gave the final salute and a bugler played taps.
One more honor would be accorded to Lydia Whiteside. In the mid-1920s, Canada was rebuilding its famed parliament buildings after they were destroyed by fire in 1916. In the center building, a Nurses’ Memorial was added to honor Canadian, British, and American nurses who died in World War I. The memorial was unveiled on August 25, 1926. Lydia Whiteside’s name is engraved in the memorial along with five other Americans.
*Another Twin Ports woman died while serving in World War I, but she wasn’t in the military. Faith Helen Rogers of Superior died on the voyage over to France. She had been appointed by the YMCA to do entertainment work for the troops. The 32-year-old musician and composer had served as organist for Duluth’s Pilgrim Congregational Church for about nine years at the time of her death. She left New York on October 31, 1918, aboard the S.S. Espagne. It was said that she died in her sleep on the morning of November 6, 1918, of exhaustion and possibly heart disease. She was buried in France, and her body was returned to the U.S. after the war. She was re-buried in Superior on November 1, 1920. Thanks to Joann Sher for this information.
Written by David Ouse