She was born Katherine Patterson Irwin on 14 March 1870 in Dayton, Montgomery County Ohio, the daughter of Andrew Barr & Jane (Schenck) Irwin. Her family nickname was “Kitty,” as shown in the census, and she grew up in Dayton, attending the local schools.
What is known is that she served as a Red Cross Nurse for the A.E.F. in Europe from April 1918 to 24 June 1918 when she died of spinal meningitis, in Evacuation Hospital, at Baccarat France. The disease was probably contracted from one of her patients. It is also known that prior to her enlistment she worked as a nurse in the infirmary (Hooper Building) at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Her photograph (as shown at right) was published in the 1919 graduate yearbook The Pean.
She is not acknowledged (though she should be ) on the WWI memorial plaque in the New Hampshire State House NOR at the memorial of the University of New Hampshire. She is listed in W. M. Haulsee, F. G. Howe, A. C. Doyle, comp., Soldiers of the Great War, vol. 2 (Washington, D. C.: Soldiers Record Publishing Assoc., 1920), under those from New Hampshire who died from Disease, Rank Nurse.
I pieced together other significant highlights of her life using a variety of news articles in nursing journals and census records. In 1909 Katharine P. Irwin was corresponding secretary for the Dayton Ohio Graduating Nurses’ Association of Dayton and Vicinity [from The American Journal of Nursing, Volume 9, page 783.] This implies that she graduated around 1909 or before from a Dayton Ohio nursing program.
According to a Nursing World magazine story of 1918, she graduated from the Paterson General Hospital (Paterson NJ) in 1908 and worked there as a night supervisor until about 1916 when she enlisted in the Red Cross service for wear duty, serving on the Mexican border. This story goes on to erroneously state that she left for Europe in May of 1917 with a group of nurses formed in Lakewood New Jersey. I cannot rule out this information but it seems improbable, based on the official record that she enlisted from Ohio in 1918. [See these notes in their entirety in the footnotes]
The Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the World War, 1917-18. Columbus, OH, USA: The F.J. Heer Printing Co., 1926 states: “KATHERINE P. IRWIN. Nurse, White. The Calvert, 21 Wilkinson St., Dayton O. — Br Dayton O. Mch 14/76. She was born Katherine Patterson Irwin on 14 March 1870 in Dayton, Montgomery County Ohio, the daughter of Andrew Barr & Jane (Schenck) Irwin. Notified Miss Sarah Crane Irwin, Exeter, N.H.”
Katherine’s connection with Exeter, New Hampshire is not just that her family (sister Sarah) lived there. In fact both she and her sister worked in Exeter in the year 1918. Sarah C. Irwin had attended Simmons College in Massachusetts in 1914. The 1918 Exeter (NH) City Directory shows the following.
–1918 City Directory, Exeter New Hampshire–
IRWIN Katherine Miss nurse Hooper House P E A 10 Main h do
IRWIN Sarah Miss matron Graduates House 90 Front bds do
From this we know that at least for a time in 1918, Katherine P. Irwin was working as the infirmary nurse at Hooper House. From ‘The Story of Phillips Exeter’ I was able to learn that “For many years Hooper House, which stood on the present site of Jeremiah Smith Hall, served as the Academy Infirmary.” The Graduates House where Katherine’s sister Sarah worked was formerly The Chadwick House, and was in 1918 a residence for Phillips Exeter Academy offering reception rooms and 25 boarding rooms for alumni visitors.
As an addendum to this story, it should be noted that the students of Phillips Exeter Academy was hit hard by influenza later that year. “…the invasion of Spanish influenza in the autumn of 1918. It probably had its origin in Army camps, but it certain transformed the Academy into the semblance of a besieged town while it lasted. At times about 100 boys were ill and once, and cases continued from October well into the winter. Hooper House, the only infirmary at the time, could not accommodate all the patients. The old Gymnasium standing behind the Academy Building was pressed into service, and as many sick boys as possible remained in their rooms to be cared for by wives of members of the Faculty. Many students were seriously ill; one boy died. There could be no question but that this school of more than 600 students needed both a school physician and an adequate infirmary.”
On November 17, 1918 the Boston Sunday Globe announced: “Exeter Battalion Dance. EXETER, N.H., Nov 16–An enjoyable dance was given at the Thompson Gymnasium tonight by the academy battalion. The patronesses were Mrs. Lewis Perry, Mrs. Fletcher N. Robinson, Mrs. Arthur G. Leacock, Mrs. Alfred R. Wightman, Mrs. Frederick R. Whitman, Mrs. Corning Benton, Mrs. Howard S. Stuckey and Miss Katherine P. Irwin.” It seems sadly ironic that Katherine’s name is mentioned as a patroness, for she would have been dead by the date the event was held.
All accounts agree that Katherine P. Irwin died of disease on 25 June 1918 , specifically spinal meningitis, at Evacuation Hospital No. 2, located at Baccarat France. As was the custom, she was buried in a grave near the hospital, with a wooden cross as described in the statement found in the footnotes. It appears that when the war ended, her remains were returned to the United States. A memorial tombstone sits in the Irwin family plot in Kuttawa Cemetery, in Kuttawa, Lyon County Kentucky. Shaped like a memorial cross, the inscription on her tombstone reads:
KATHERINE P. IRWIN
NURSE EVAC HOSP No. 2
At least for a while she was remembered. A Lexington Leader, Lexington Kentucky news of 30 May 1923 noted a Decoration Day event: “The memory of Miss Katherine P. Irwin, army nurse, who died in service June 24, 1918, was honored by the Women’s Overseas League.”
Katherine left behind more than one sister. Her siblings included:
1. Eliza Schenk Irwin, b 2 June 1864 Dayton Ohio, d. 8 March 1919 Lawrenceburg KY; m. Lewis Witherspoon McKee
2. Woodhull Schenck “Wood” Irwin, b. 1 Aug 1866 Ohio, d. 4 July 1918 Caldwell Co., KY; buried in Kuttawa Cemetery.
3. Sarah Crane Irwin, (Sarah Jane Irwin) b. 7 May 1868 Dayton, Montgomery Co. Ohio, d. 7 October 1927. Nurse. Single.
Nursing World, Volumes 60-61, 1918, page 316 [Editor’s Note: this information does not seem entirely accurate]
Katherine P. Irwin, former night supervisor of the Paterson General Hospital, is the first woman from Paterson to give her life in the service of her country as a Red Cross nurse in France. Word of her death was received by Thomas R. Zulich, superintendent of the General Hospital, in a letter from Capt. Orville R. Hagen, Health Officer, on leave for war duty. In his letter Captain Hagen, who is connected with the 307th Field Hospital, said that while strolling about on July 4 he came upon several new graves and saw the name of Miss Irwin on one of the wooden crosses. At Red Cross headquarters he learned that Miss Irwin came from Paterson. She died of spinal meningitis, contracted while nursing wounded soldiers. Miss Irwin was a native of Dayton, Ohio. She graduated from the Paterson General Hospital in 1906. She served in the hospital until the Mexican trouble two years ago, when she enlisted in the Red Cross service for war duty on the border. In May, 1917, she left for the European battlefront with a group of nurses formed in Lakewood.
[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I. Look here for the entire listing].