Lea Williams

Casting light on an extraordinary nurse.

Lea Williams is writing a book on the life and accomplishments of early-20th-century nurse Ellen N. La Motte.

Lea Williams is writing a book on the life and accomplishments of early-20th-century nurse Ellen N. La Motte. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

Associate Professor Lea Williams decided to write about early-20th-century nurse Ellen N. La Motte, not because La Motte was an outstanding nurse—which she was—but because she was one of a generation of women who used their profession as a means of making their opinions known to a greater audience, through their writings. “Studying La Motte’s life and works helps us to understand…how women used nursing as a way of inserting themselves into public conversations about topics they saw as related—the vote and politics, for example,” Williams says.

Williams first wrote about La Motte, along with several other American and British wartime nurses, while working on her dissertation on the topic of women at war. And although her original thought was to turn that work into a book, she discovered that her true interest lay primarily with La Motte. “I was fascinated by La Motte’s story and did some additional research while I was completing my PhD, such as attempting to locate members of her family to see if there were any surviving papers or letters,” Williams says. While she didn’t find La Motte’s relatives then, she did start to gather some tidbits of information that would help her later. And, she has “since found a number of wonderful sources of information that have helped me to better understand her intellectual and professional growth,” Williams says.

After joining Norwich’s English department in 2006, Williams decided to learn as much as she could about this nurse turned public health advocate, writer, and suffragette. “I wanted to see if there was a larger story about her to tell,” Williams says.

Her initial research led to the publication of two articles by Williams on La Motte: one in Nursing History Review, and a brief biographical entry in American National Biography, both last year.

In June 2014, Williams was awarded an H-15 grant from the American Association for the History of Nursing to continue her research into La Motte’s life and writings. She views the award as a validation of her scholarly efforts. “It is an honor to receive support from an organization outside my field,” Williams says, “because in a way it proves the value of the work I am pursuing.”

In the process of her research, Williams says she has learned a great deal about war nursing, a topic she has been able to draw on for her literature and writing classes. “These writings observe war from a unique perspective,” she says.

Through writing—and eventually publishing—La Motte’s biography, Williams hopes to cast light on this extraordinary woman’s life and accomplishments: After attending the prestigious Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses, La Motte acquired a national reputation as an anti-tuberculosis nurse and protector of the public health. In addition, she fought for women’s voting rights, lived in Europe before the start of World War I, cared for Allied soldiers on the Western Front, traveled through Asia, and was an anti-opium crusader.

Throughout her lifetime, La Motte wrote prolifically, publishing seven books and many dozens of articles in such venues as The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly. “Her life and work provide an opportunity to reflect on public health nursing, women’s campaign for the vote, war and nursing, and the international opium trade,” Williams says. “By tracing her life and analyzing her writings about these topics, I hope to make a contribution to the scholarship in these fields.” – d.l.w.

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