Recently, an especially fragile scrapbook, created by the World War I nurse Beatrice MacDonald, came to Schlesinger Library’s conservation department. The scrapbook is part of the Ann Fraser Brewer Papers.
MacDonald served in northern France during World War I. Through this modestly displayed gathering of clippings, photographs, letters, and travel passes, we learn of her extraordinary story.
In 1915, MacDonald went to France to volunteer with the ambulance service at the American Hospital of Paris.
She returned to the United States for a couple of years, where she continued her work as office nurse for the New York surgeon George Emerson Brewer. In 1917, MacDonald joined Brewer’s team of doctors and nurses and went back to assist in northern France.
Upon her arrival in France, she received training in battlefield medicine, including specialized instruction on how to manage treatment of the newly introduced weapon of gas. She wrote that her instruction included “. . . entering chambers containing a certain amount of Phosgene and other gasses, in order that we should be able to recognize them in case of an attack, and to become adept in adjusting our gas masks in less than ten seconds.”
We see a view of the interior of a hospital tent, with the sobering notation that area number 5 in the center of the photograph is the “Room for Hopeless cases.”
MacDonald was stationed at the British Casualty Clearing Station No. 1. At these stations, mere miles from the front, doctors and nurses carried out triage on the injured soldiers. On the night of August 17, 1917, Germans bombarded the hospital tent where MacDonald was on duty. During the course of this raid, MacDonald was gravely wounded and lost an eye. She eventually recovered and insisted upon returning to duty, claiming, “I’ve only started doing my bit.” This clichéd phrase, now associated with propaganda posters and popular culture, was spoken by the first casualty of the American Expeditionary Forces of World War I.
MacDonald received numerous awards in recognition of her bravery and is perhaps one of the most highly decorated women of the war. Her commendation for the Distinguished Service Cross states:
It is interesting to note that this cross is to be conferred upon a woman and a nurse. This war has, of course, taken the nurses, who are the ministers of mercy, up to the very front lines of battle, and because of the carrying of the war into the third dimension the airplane has, of course, made their task more perilous.
When scrapbooks come to the Schlesinger Library’s conservation department for assessment, they are usually in a fragile state, and we must determine whether the scrapbook is able to be used in its current condition. The supporting pages can be weak, acidic, and damaging to the original items attached. The attached items themselves can be of poor quality and are adhered using a variety of materials, such as rubber cement, mucilage, paste, and pressure sensitive tape—the worst! These adhesives can fail. The pages often get cockled. Dust and dirt accumulate in these recesses and can be fertile ground for mold. Oversize items extending beyond the edges of the scrapbook are susceptible to tears and loss.
Sometimes a scrapbook can be simply cleaned up and boxed to help mitigate environmental changes, light damage, and pollution. In more dire cases, the scrapbook might have just one or two more uses in its life before it completely disintegrates. Perhaps one of those final uses should be to capture the scrapbook as best as one can through digitization.
Scrapbooks are by nature unique, personal items. The selection of items and their arrangement can truly convey a time, a place, and an individual’s experience. Some items in this scrapbook possess near talismanic properties and help to place the viewer directly at the scene. We are used to seeing pressed flowers in scrapbooks—a corsage or a fern from a summer holiday—but here we see a humble, brownish, not-easily-identifiable crushed bloom encased in tape. A poppy. One week after she was wounded, Colonel Brewer gave Beatrice MacDonald this poppy from Vimy Ridge. One can easily imagine that MacDonald, born on Prince Edward Island, would have placed special significance on this relic from the site of a major engagement by Canadians earlier in the year. Perhaps the gift of the poppy gave her courage in facing her own grave injury. Her careful enshrining of the most iconic symbol of World War I is a poignant reminder of the cost of war. The Schlesinger Library plans to respect this scrapbook by digitally capturing it as MacDonald created it, and by preserving the original physical form using established conservation techniques.