Last updated: February 25. 2014 3:36PM - 1608 Views
Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist



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In late 1919 and early 1920, news of a proposed city hall occupied the local press. While waiting in January 1920 for news of bids for demolition of the existing city hall so the new building could be constructed, the Sedalia Democrat printed stories about both negative and positive events in Sedalia. One positive report concerned the work of the Red Cross nurse hired to serve Pettis County.


The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, who had served as a nurse to Civil War soldiers. In the years after its founding, the organization provided disaster relief, battlefield nursing during the Spanish-American War, and classes in first aid, water safety, and public health.


During World War I, the Red Cross provided 20,000 registered nurses to serve with the military. They also provided nursing to victims of the Spanish influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe and the United States in 1918 and the following years.


Pettis Countians formed active chapters of the Red Cross during World War I, with branches in Sedalia and the smaller towns and junior chapters in the schools. Members met troop trains passing through Sedalia, serving coffee and providing toiletry packets for soldiers. They also raised money for civilian relief in war ravaged Europe.


After the war, the chapter continued its relief work in Europe but focused most of its efforts on enhancing health and hygiene here in Pettis County.


In November 1919, Eleanor Keely began working in Pettis County. She was very well qualified, having received training as a nurse at Trinity Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisc. During the war, she served as chief of nurses of the Kansas City unit’s Base Hospital No. 28, one of the first Red Cross units to arrive in Europe.


Miss Keely’s work was especially needed here. According to the Democrat, Pettis County experienced a shortage of trained nurses at a time when some returned veterans needed care for the physical and mental injuries sustained during the war and when influenza was still prevalent. In addition, many people could not afford hospital care and had to rely on home nursing care.


Another need involved care for expectant mothers. The importance of professional prenatal care was only beginning to be recognized. Many babies were born at home with the assistance of untrained midwives; doctors only called when an emergency arose.


Keely was not hired to provide nursing care. Instead, she was to teach individuals how to maintain good health and to care for the sick at home “intelligently and efficiently.” She also was to teach expectant mothers how to care for themselves during their pregnancies, a task the Democrat said was especially “helpful and interesting.”


Between early November and mid-January, Keely taught 150 adults in classes at La Monte, Georgetown, Dresden, Lake Tebo, and Houstonia. She also taught two classes a week at Smith-Cotton High School and La Monte High School.


More classes were scheduled to begin in Sedalia soon. The classes were free; students only had to purchase a textbook for $1. Those wishing to enroll could do so at county Red Cross headquarters at the Porter-Montgomery building on West Fourth Street. The Democrat called the class offerings “a golden opportunity” in case another outbreak of flu, similar to the 1918 epidemic, hit the area.


Mrs. U. G. Stevens, a teacher and chair of nursing activities in Pettis County, praised Keely’s abilities as a teacher, noting that she had “never seen Miss Keely’s equal.” The Democrat lauded Keely for focusing not on “technical non-essentials,” but on the “most practical…methods.”


The Democrat ended its coverage of Red Cross work by encouraging local residents to “get ready” by enrolling in Red Cross classes, because “we do not know when some calamity may reach us.”

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