Profiles In Nursing

Emma Cushman (1863-1931), Saving World War I Orphans

Pistol-packing guardian angel for the young victims of the Armenian Genocide

Emma Cushman poses with three children. They are all wearing black outfits.

In 2016, three 8th graders from Kansas produced a documentary about someone they consider an “unsung hero.” Their project, which won them the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes’ 2016 Discovery Award, was about Emma Cushman, an American nurse who is credited with saving the lives of thousands of orphans during and after World War I.

Refusing Safe Passage

Although she received her training at a hospital in New Jersey, Emma Cushman lived most of her life outside the United States, doing medical missionary work for the American Board of Foreign Missions in Turkey; establishing a hospital in Caesarea, Palestine (now part of Israel); administering the American Hospital in Konya, Turkey; and later setting up a series of orphanages. She established nursing schools in both Caeserea and Konya, using textbooks she translated herself after mastering the Turkish language.

When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of the Axis powers, all foreigners were ordered to leave. Turkey offered Cushman safe passage home, but she refused, instead bringing her formidable personality to bear on behalf of prisoners from several nations, some of them clergy members.  In effect, she became the official or unofficial consul for some 17 neutral and Allied countries, overseeing millions of dollars in relief funds.

Armenian Genocide

This was the period of the Armenian Genocide: During the war and for several years afterward, the Ottoman government killed many thousands of Armenians and exiled thousands more. Cushman worked mightily to protect as many as she could, constantly putting her own life at risk. Much of her work was done in secrecy with the support of friendly Turks. Ottoman officials could do little to stop her.

RN Career Events

Cushman’s primary concern was helping women and children obtain the basics of food, shelter and safety. Gadarine Topjian Boudakian, one of Cushman’s young charges, later described Cushman as a guardian angel, praising her not only for her courage, but also for her ability to help the girls — some of whom were rescued from harems or other mistreatment — heal from psychological trauma.

By war’s end, Cushman had charge of at least 1,000 orphans. At one point, the only other adult was the cook!

“Very Much a Fighter”

The end of the war did not end the misery in Turkey. After the Armistice, the rise of the Nationalist Movement meant that Christians were very much in danger, but, as the Near East Relief Foundation’s Lucius E. Thayer later recalled, “Miss Cushman … was very much of a fighter when occasion demanded.”

He wasn’t speaking figuratively either, noting that Cushman was armed both day and night with pistols, with which, Thayer said, “she was just as good a shot as the best of us.”

Saving the Orphans

By this time, Cushman was working for Near East Relief, which put her in charge of three orphanages and 2,000 children. “It was … a heavy problem to know what to do with the orphans and other helpless people who depended on me for life,” she wrote.

In 1922, an enormous, deliberately set fire, popularly known as the Great Smyrna Disaster, destroyed the Greek and Armenian sections of the City of Smyrna, Turkey (today called Izmir). Cushman helped to evacuate 22,000 orphans, personally leading 1,700 children to safety in Corinth, Greece.

Nursing Education

There, another orphanage, now with 3,000 children, took on all the characteristics of a Cushman enterprise: coeducational classrooms and sports; a form of self-governance by the children, including elected leaders and a juvenile court; and vocational instruction. Her orphans became “the best farmers, the most skillful artisans and the tidiest housewifes [sic] to be found.”

Years of living in almost impossible conditions and always on the edge took their toll. On a Christmas vacation visit to Cairo in late 1930, Cushman suddenly fell ill. A combination of anemia and malignant malaria proved to be too much and she died in 1931. Her funeral drew more than 500 of “her” orphans who had relocated to Egypt, along with representatives of many humanitarian groups and the governments of the U.S. and Greece.

Award-Winning but Obscure

During her lifetime, Cushman was awarded the Cross of the French Legion of Honor, the Gold Cross of Jerusalem, the Gold Cross of the Order of the Redeemer (from Greece), the Queen Alexandra War Medal (from the U.K.), the Distinguished Service Medal of the Near East Relief Foundation and the Blessing of the Greek Orthodox Church from the Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Yet, all these honors proved ephemeral, and Cushman is little-remembered today.

Why is Cushman such an obscure figure in nursing? First, her trips home were rare. She was, as she once remarked, “too busy to go home to America to lecture and to be interviewed and to be written and talked about.”

In honor of their effort, the three young documentary filmmakers — Colin Caviness, Luke Boyden and Colin Everts — received permission to inscribe Cushman’s headstone in the American Cemetery in Cairo, where, until recently, she had been buried in an unmarked grave.

You can watch the kids’ remarkable documentary, “Emma Cushman: A Light in the Darkness,” on YouTube.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN,  is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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