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Called to heal: The journey of Clara Maass

by Laura Jane Gifford

Late-nineteenth century New Jersey could be a difficult place for a young woman from a poor German-immigrant household to gain a foothold. Clara Maass was the eldest daughter of a large, economically struggling family. She needed to work hard from an early age.

 Despite her limited circumstances, Maass’ fortitude and courage gave her brief life enduring significance for millions. Each August 13, the church commemorates her life as a “renewer of society” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 16). 

Maass was born in 1876 in East Orange, N.J. With the exception of a brief, unsuccessful stint on a country farm, her childhood years were spent in the tenements. She worked from an early age as a “mother’s helper,” a position for which she earned only room, board and the opportunity to attend school. At age 15, with three years of her high school education complete, she applied for a position at the Newark Orphan Asylum. Maass worked seven days a week to earn $10 per month, half of which she sent home to her mother.

Maass’ childhood years were a formative period for the development of hospital-based medicine, both in Newark and throughout the United States. The city’s large German American community rallied to construct the Newark German Hospital in 1870. While the hospital quickly grew in size and prominence, skilled nursing care was a persistent deficiency. The hospital’s leadership decided to begin a nurse training school. Local benefactor Christina Trefz donated a building to house nurse trainees. By 1893 the institution was dedicating the newly built Trefz Hall and ready to welcome its second class of students: women between the ages of 20 and 40 “of good character and with proof of physical ability.”

Maass was only 17 in 1893. She could easily have seen the hospital’s regulations as set in stone. Despite this obstacle, she went to see nursing school director, Anna Steeber, in person and pleaded for a place. Legend has it that when Steeber saw Maass’ work-reddened hands, she recognized a young woman who was used to hard labor. Steeber bent the rules and accepted Maass into her program. By 1895, the 19-year-old was a fully trained nurse. Just three years later, at age 21, hospital directors named Maass head nurse. Accounts of her time in Newark record that she viewed nursing as a way to care for both body and soul; she wanted to follow the example of Christ as healer.

Just as Maass took her new position at Newark German Hospital, her country went to war against Spanish colonizers on the island of Cuba. The Spanish American War would eventually be fought in both Cuba and the Philippines. Then and now it was a controversial conflict; Americans disagreed, and continue to disagree, about the justice of the war and its aims. For a young woman who’d had little opportunity for adventure, however, service in Cuba was an exhilarating way for Maass to serve her country and carry on her mission of healing. There was just one problem: the Army would not accept female nurses.

Army medical officers assumed that female nurses would only become necessary if the conflict proved exceptionally lengthy or severe. Cuba’s tropical conditions, however, proved more dangerous than the battles themselves. Soon the need for “contract” nurses was readily apparent. Surgeon General George M. Sternberg overcame his earlier reluctance to female nurses as he recognized the improvements 25 years of professional nurse-training programs had wrought. The Daughters of the American Revolution began screening applications, including Maass’ query. In August of 1898, physician and DAR vice president Anita Newcomb McGee was hired by the Army to process contract nurses under the rank of acting assistant surgeon, and Maass was on her way to Florida. 

Tropical diseases felled many more American soldiers than combat. Serving in Jacksonville, Fla. and Savannah, Ga., Maass and her colleagues stayed very busy. They nursed soldiers suffering from dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever. Late in the fall Maass finally made her way to Cuba itself. Serving in Santiago de Cuba, she encountered yet another tropical malady: the dreaded yellow fever, referred to by soldiers as “yellow jack” for the Navy flag used to signal quarantine.

Maass’ Army contract ended in February 1899. Native insurgents in the Philippines, however, proved resistant to American domination of their country, producing a continuing need for soldiers—and medical care. Watching from New Jersey, Maass was impressed by Surgeon General Sternberg’s reputation both as scientist and as compassionate healer. Sternberg, a fellow Lutheran, strove to care well for sick and wounded soldiers. Maass wanted to be a part of these efforts. She wrote the Surgeon General’s office directly to ask if she might again be of assistance. On Nov. 20, 1899, Maass received two hours’ notice to board a ship bound for Manila. 

Laura Jane Gifford, Ph.D., is a professional historian and a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore.

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