Lillian Carter, Proving Age is Not a Barrier

Profiles in Nursing

Lillian Carter, Proving Age is Not a Barrier

She joined the Peace Corp at age 68

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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She was as well known for her acerbic quotes as she was for her formidable accomplishments. And even though one of her sons grew up to become the president of the United States, her accomplishments were second to none. Lillian Carter was born in 1898 in Richland, Georgia, the fourth of nine children. She inherited from her father a strong sense of social justice, especially racial equality, which she carried with her for her entire life.

With Dignity for All

She entered nurses’ training at the Wise Sanitarium in Plains, Georgia despite her parents’ disapproval, and graduated from the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in 1923. From the very beginning, Carter nursed people of all colors and backgrounds. Although she officially retired from nursing when she married, in fact she actively nursed the employees of her husband’s businesses and members of her community throughout her early years. During the Depression her wages as a nurse helped keep the family afloat. In his book about his mother Jimmy Carter says:

Since we lived several miles from town among neighbors who were very poor and whose best transportation, if any, was a mule and wagon, my mother cared for many of them almost as a doctor, often providing both diagnosis and treatment. There may have been other nurses who did this, but I never heard of it. Mama was a special person, who refused to acknowledge most racial distinctions and spent many hours with our black neighbors. She never charged them anything for her help, but they would usually bring her what they could afford — a shoat, some chickens, a few dozen eggs, or perhaps blackberries or chestnuts (An Hour Before Daylight).

Passage to India

At one point she managed a nursing home but quit when she said that most of the residents were no older than she was. In a most remarkable step into the unknown, when Carter was 68, she applied for the Peace Corps. Whether she was demented or simply determined was the question, and she was asked to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to explain why a well-off widow with a son running for governor would want to traipse off  to the misery that was India. She had merely taken the Peace Corps ads at face value, “age is not a barrier.”     Carter was sent to India where initially she worked in family planning. Finding that not to her liking and disliking the constraint that she only help specific clients, she eventually set up a full-service free clinic that cared for everyone, even lepers.

Her tour was not easy and she had a very difficult time with the heat, the filth, and the extreme poverty. Most onerous was the constant challenge to her desire to treat all people with the same dignity and equality. In later years she told the Washington Post, “I hadn’t the strength to bear the horrible cruelty and indifference.” But she stuck it out and later said the experience was one of the most important of her life.

 Her experiences made her a champion of the widowed and the elderly, not to mention nurses. Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in honor of her time in the Corps. It has as its mission “the improvement of health of vulnerable people worldwide through nursing education, research, practice and policy.” The Peace Corps regional office in Atlanta also has an award named after her for volunteers who accomplish the most after age 50.   

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.
Photo (above) courtesy Emory School of Nursing.

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