Profiles In Nursing

Katherine Buckner Avery (1896-1982), Nightingale of the Bayou

This Tabasco Sauce heiress was a champion for the underserved

Katherine Buckner Avery sits in an old car with a gown and hat on

Although the region and the time period in which she worked seldom rate a mention in the big history books, Katherine Buckner Avery’s dogged commitment to public health has had a lasting impact on her community and the state of Louisiana that continues even today.

From Salt Mines to Public Health

Avery was born in New Orleans, but she spent most of her early life on nearby Avery Island in the Gulf of Mexico. The island, which was named after her family, is more commonly known as the home of TABASCO-brand pepper sauce and the salt mine that supplies the salt for the now-famous hot sauce.

Avery’s parents objected when their daughter insisted on pursuing training as a nurse in the wake of World War I. “I think my family thought it wouldn’t last,” she later wrote. Off she went anyway, to Touro Infirmary School of Nursing, from which she graduated in 1921.

By 1927, after several years in varied posts, including hospital, industrial and school nursing, Avery joined the Louisiana Public Health Service as an American Red Cross nurse, the first public health nurse appointed in Iberia Parish.

The Levies Break

1927 was the year of the Great Mississippi River Flood, one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. Caused by an almost complete collapse of levies after months of heavy rain that began in mid-1926, the flooding left more than 23,000 square miles of land submerged. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and hundreds died. Thousands were left homeless and unemployed.

As the waters rose, Avery, accompanied by a physician, helped load people into boxcars to get them to higher ground. Both during the flood and afterwards, she and more than 300 other American Red Cross nurses provided healthcare in tents and makeshift lean-tos at refugee camps throughout the affected region.

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Avery supervised a field hospital for flood victims in the Atchafalaya Basin, often using her own money to purchase supplies and food. She traveled by boat, rowing her way through the flood waters to provide immunizations and checkups. Taking advantage of her captive audience, she used these opportunities to educate the stranded people about health and diet.

As the waters receded and people reestablished their homes, she also offered instruction in proper sanitation practices. Despite the primitive conditions, this public health effort prevented the flood from triggering disease epidemics, a real testament to the care provided. In those days, Avery later recalled, “If a disease came along, you just survived it, or didn’t.”

Equal Treatment for All

Disasters often strike poor and minority communities hardest, but they can also be great levelers. During the flood, and later during the Great Depression, Avery fought strenuously for equality of treatment. She also championed care for the poor regardless of race, in a region and a time that still practiced segregation in its harshest forms.  Need was her priority and she always sought to make care services available to everyone, even those living in isolated areas with no way to reach clinics or hospitals.

She met her patients on their own familiar territory, appearing at local grocery stores to inoculate patrons and driving alone deep into the bayou to reach isolated families.

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In 1929, seeing the plight of children born with birth defects and crippled by various diseases, she rallied public support to establish the Crippled Children’s Association of Iberia Parish.

Around the same time, she also established the Iberia Parish Tuberculosis Association. The latter organization eventually dubbed her “the Florence Nightingale of the Bayou Country.”

Hands-On and Heroic

Avery’s leadership and activism were generous, personal and hands-on. She once accompanied a trainload of indigent children to New Orleans so that they could undergo tonsillectomies and appendectomies. At her own expense, she took disabled children to Charity Hospital in New Orleans to be treated by an orthopedic surgeon.

Did a family need a washing machine to care for a child recovering from surgery and provide them with clean linen? Avery would call her network of friends and benefactors and the machine would be delivered.

In 1943, she joined a small but heroic group of nurses who treated people quarantined with the deadly psittacosis bacteria, aka “parrot fever,” work for which some people shunned them. (At the time, some Americans believed parrot fever was the product of Japanese germ warfare.) Always one to go her own way, Avery persisted.

A Lasting Legacy

Avery officially retired in 1945, but according to her great niece, Avery Bassich Corenswet, she was still knitting bandages for leprosy patients well into her 70s.

After Avery died on April 6, 1982, she was interred in the family cemetery on Avery Island, where she had spent much of her later years.  In life, Avery received the New Iberia Chamber of Commerce award for outstanding civic service and was named a distinguished graduate of Touro Infirmary.

Each year, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana now awards the Katherine Buckner Avery Excellence in Nursing Award to Blue Cross RNs who promote our profession’s highest ideals.

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

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