Not All Patriots Are Fighters

July 23, 2014

AAUW history is full of heroes in unexpected places.

Case in point: Ruth Holden was a young American paleobotanist studying fossilized plant life who later found herself helping to establish war hospitals in Russia.

Ruth Holden documentary cover

Ruth Holden was featured in the documentary “Heroine of the Great War.”

Holden received an AAUW European Fellowship to study at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge in 1913. She was amazing in a number of ways beyond her extraordinary academic abilities. According to an article in her hometown newspaper, she had played on her high school’s baseball team at a time when girls’ participation in such sports was highly unusual, and she was active in the women’s suffrage movement. She possessed a strong social conscience that manifested early in her life.

In 1916, Holden put her Cambridge education on hold to serve as a nurse in Russia. The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917 but, as the article goes on to note, Holden could not idly sit by while her fellow students at Cambridge gave everything to support the cause and those suffering from the war’s effects.

In their book Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I, Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider quote Holden from a letter to her parents: “If I were to sit tight at Newnham, continuing my research on fossil botany, of all things, getting the benefit of their sacrifices, don’t you think it would look like the height of selfishness?”

Although she had no prewar nursing experience, Holden quickly became a major asset in Russia. Her work, according to the Schneiders, included “acting as an interpreter … chivvying workmen to complete the new hospitals which the unit was opening, [and] traveling around Russia to procure equipment and supplies,” a far cry from spending her days comfortably in the historic halls of Cambridge. The general administrator of one of the hospitals where Holden worked, quoted in Margaret Maltby’s History of the Fellowships Awarded by the AAUW, praised her by saying, “If there was any business that needed to be looked after anywhere she used to go off at an hour’s notice, traveling alone. … Half the unit were not aware that they had a brilliant scientist among them. She was willing to do anything that was asked, and she was asked to do the unpleasant things.”

Tragically, Holden contracted typhoid fever and died of meningitis at the age of 27 in April 1917, the same month that the United States finally declared war on Germany. Holden was every bit as brave as other AAUW fellows who risked their lives in military hospitals, guerrilla regiments, and anti-Nazi resistance movements. Although her life was cut short by the war, her memory serves as a reminder of the many ways that AAUW fellows and their often unsung women peers helped shape the modern world.

This post was written by AAUW archives intern Elizabeth Beckman.



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