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Mary M.A. Weiss: A Fearless Red Cross Nurse

Mary M. A. Weiss, a New York resident, was a fearless woman who twice braved the dangers of World War I as a Red Cross nurse.

Weiss documented her experiences in scrapbooks (shown below), photos and personal remembrances. Her archival materials are now in the historical collection of the Red Cross in Greater New York.

Weiss’ passport signed by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.

Sails On First Mercy Ship

Mary M. A. Weiss, left, and with her nurse shipmates onboard the S. S. Red Cross.

On Sept. 12, 1914, after the beginning of World War I, Weiss, along with 126 other members of the Red Cross Nursing Service and 30 surgeons, sailed on the S. S. Red Cross. Onboard the ship were medical supplies to aid the wounded civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict. Although the nurses volunteered to go overseas, they were paid for their work.

Turns Theater Into Hospital

Weiss’ team was bound for the German town of Gleiwitz in southern Prussia, now part of Poland. Upon her arrival, she helped convert the town’s Viktoria Theater into a hospital for treating wounded German soldiers. The team transformed the theater’s downstairs lobby into a 62-bed ward, with 16 more beds in an upper reception room.

Weiss’ souvenir postcard of the Viktoria Theater exterior.

By the end of Weiss’ year-long service, the hospital had moved to a larger concert hall space with 140 beds and treated 1,527 soldiers. She returned home in September 1915, and for her nursing service, Weiss received a medal from the German government.

Letter from Jane Delano to Weiss announcing her German medal.

Braves Danger Second Time

After the United States entered the war, Weiss volunteered to return to Europe to care for wounded American soldiers.

Weiss and a group of volunteer nurses set out on July 29, 1917, bound for France. The next day their ship Saratoga was rammed by the Panama while in New York Harbor and sank after all had evacuated.

A week later, she set off on the Finland for U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 8 in Savenay. By November 1918, the hospital had 2,460 beds for wounded soldiers and 35,244 sick and wounded were cared for at the facility.

Weiss transferred in June 1918 to Evacuation Hospital No. 1 in northeastern France. Evacuation hospitals gave preliminary surgical care before patients evacuated to a base hospital for more complicated procedures. Most evacuation hospitals were situated safely nine to 15 miles from the front, but No. 1 was a mere seven miles from the battle line.

Following her work, Weiss returned to the United States in March 1919.

Red Cross Nursing Service Today

Volunteer nurses assist during Hurricane Irma 2017.

Like Mary Weiss 100 years ago, more than 20,000 Red Cross volunteer nurses serve in disaster response, health and safety instruction, biomedical and blood services, and in service to military families. To learn about Red Cross nursing opportunities, contact redcrossnurse@redcross.org.

Learn more about Red Cross history on redcross.org