Harriet Root papers, 1918-1920

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History of Medicine Collection (David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library), Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, and Ayer, Harriet Irwin Root, 1891-1973
Harriet Root was a white American nurse who served with the Army Nurse Corps at U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 14 in Mars sur Allier, France, and later at Vannes Camp Hospital 91, France. This collection consists largely of her letters home to her family as well as some letters her family received from her friends and fellow nurses. Also contains incomplete run (scattered issues 1918-1919) of The Martian, a newspaper published by Hospital Base 14; Root collected and sent these issues to her family.
0.5 Linear Feet (1 box)
Materials in English and French.
Collection ID:


Scope and content:

This collection contains correspondence from Harriet I. Root to her family, particularly her mother, while Root was stationed in France as part of the Army Nurse Corps between 1918 and 1919, during and immediately following World War I.

Root's letters describe her life and work at U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 14 in Mars sur Allier, which was still in the process of being established when she first arrived in August 1918. She writes of her work as a nurse treating soldiers arriving by hospital train from the front, as well as of her leisure time, living conditions, and news from family and friends. Letters from late 1918 record the steady infrastructure improvements for the hospital. Some letters have been censored, and most indicate that they have been reviewed by the Army's censor. Root also discusses her homesickness and some of the injuries and other trauma she witnessed when receiving and caring for wounded soldiers. She describes celebrating Halloween and Christmas with some camp parties and caroling. She also discusses the 1918 influenza pandemic which hit the camp but which she said was "light" compared to what was happening in the United States. Root was transferred to Vannes Camp Hospital 91 in spring of 1919, and was stationed there and at the Embarkation Center in France until summer 1919. She traveled home to Chicago via London and Edinburgh in July 1919.

Most of the collection's letters are from Root to her parents and sister, Constance (Connie). Other letters to Harriet's mother (Mrs. Frank K. Root) are also present in the collection from Harriet's friends and fellow nurses, including her roommate Harriet Liers, as well as a few items from Frank Ayers, who Harriet Root later married.

There are some real photo postcards that Root used for letter-writing, showing the buildings and landscape of the camp and labeled with annotations by Root. There are other printed photograph postcards also used for letters, numbered sequentially and showing scenes from Vannes and other areas of France.

The collection also contains some late 1918 and early 1919 issues of The Martian, an Army newspaper for the U.S. Base 14. Root collected these to send to her family. The Martian discusses camp life, containing soldier and nurse submissions, poetry, jokes, and other articles and anecdotal news items. Some issues contain cartoons or artwork, some of which depict racist stereotypes or which contain exaggerated caricatures. One issue contains an article about "Annamites," referring to Vietnamese from colonial French Indochina who worked in France, including at the base hospital, in support of the Allied war effort. The newspaper discusses the Vietnamese workers in paternalistic and racially derogatory terms.

Biographical / historical:

Harriet Irwin Root Ayer was a white American nurse who served with the Army Nurse Corps at U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 14 in Mars sur Allier, France, and later at Vannes Camp Hospital 91, France.

Root was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Sept. 11, 1891, to parents Frank Kimball Root and Elizabeth Harriet Irwin Root. She had at least one sibling, Constance Root. The family lived in Cook County, Illinois. The 1920 Census reflects that Frank K. Root was a publisher of music.

Harriet joined the Army Nurse Corps and was sent to France via Southampton in August 1918. During World War I, the nurses treated wounded and ill soldiers and also completed administrative tasks at the hospital. Once the war ended, Root was stationed at the Embarkation Center in France. She was discharged in mid 1919, after which she was able to return to Chicago via London and Edinburgh.

In 1920, Harriet married Frank Ashton Ayer (1886-1976). Ayer was a World War I veteran (and has some correspondence in the collection to Root's mother). The South Africa Biographical Index database indicates that Frank Ayer, his spouse Harriet, and three children moved to Northern Rhodesia in 1933, where Frank worked as a manager in a copper mine. Eventually the family settled in New York. Harriet Root Ayer died in Westchester, N.Y., on Nov. 1 1973.

Acquisition information:
The Harriet Root Papers were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library as a purchase from Caroliniana Books in 2023.
Processing information:

Processed by Meghan Lyon, September 2023

Accessions described in this collection guide: 2023-0103

Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard


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Preferred citation:

[Identification of item], Harriet Root Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.