Profiles In Nursing

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (1851–1926), Cancer Nurse and Candidate for Sainthood

Oncology nurse and candidate for sainthood

The youngest child of famed novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was born into a wealthy New England family with literary and political connections. A series of tragedies led her to relinquish the comforts of privilege to become an oncology nurse and the founder of St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer.

A Literary Childhood

In 1851, one year after publishing The Scarlet Letter, American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, welcomed their second daughter, Rose.

Her childhood was divided between the United States, England and Europe: When she was two years old, President Franklin Pierce, a close family friend, appointed her father to serve as the U.S. consul in Liverpool, England, and the family traveled the Continent for three years after he stepped down from his post.

Back home in Concord, Mass., Rose Hawthorne grew up in the company of some of America’s most celebrated philosophers and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Herman Melville.

However, Rose’s idyllic childhood was shattered when her father passed away from an unknown illness (likely gastrointestinal cancer) when she was 13 years old. The family struggled financially after his death. In 1871, Rose married George Parsons Lathrop, a poet and novelist.

Tragedies and Conversion to Catholicism

Although her parents had disapproved of women writers, Rose published a novel, Miss Dilettante, followed by a book of poems, Along the Shore.

Nursing Education

But tragedy struck the Lathrops in 1881, when their son Francis, just five years old, died of diphtheria. Grief strained their marriage. George began drinking and became increasingly unstable, while Rose turned to religion and charity work.

Around this time, Rose had met and become close friends with Emma Lazarus — the writer and activist whose poem “The New Colossus” is inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Sadly, Lazarus died from cancer in 1887. Rose was heartbroken.

The Lathrops soon after converted to Catholicism, a point of curiosity in Protestant New England. Conversion couldn’t save their deteriorating marriage, causing Rose to seek permission from the Catholic Church to separate from her husband. (He died from cirrhosis a few years later.)

“Serving the Cancerous Poor”

In 1896, inspired by the death of Emma Lazarus, Rose Lathrop, now 45, enrolled in a three-month nursing program at New York Cancer Hospital (today Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center). This was the first U.S. hospital to offer training for the care of cancer patients.

Becoming an oncology nurse was a brave decision because cancer was a highly stigmatized disease, associated with “bad heredity,” poor hygiene and immoral behavior. There was also a popular belief, including among some scientists of the time, that cancer was contagious.

Although there were some options for cancer treatment in the 1890s, those treatments were controversial, and seldom available to the poor. Some doctors refused to care for cancer patients, who might also be abandoned by their families.

Hiring Now

“I wish to serve the cancerous poor because they are more avoided than any other class of sufferers,” Lathrop wrote. “And I wish to go to them as a poor creature myself.”

After completing the training program, Lathrop rented three rooms in a cold-water tenement in the Lower East Side of New York City to care for impoverished cancer patients. Aided by Alice Huber, who had been inspired by Lathrop’s articles about the work, she then established Sister Rose’s Free Home (named for Saint Rose of Lima) in a house on the Lower East Side, caring for up to 15 female cancer patients at a time.

A New Religious Order

Sister Rose’s Free Home did not accept payment from patients or their families. Lathrop maintained that all funding should come through the providence of God, and she used her gifts as a writer to raise awareness and funds for her cause.

In 1899, a Dominican priest witnessed Lathrop’s good works and suggested she join the order as a lay member. The next year, she took vows to become a Dominican sister and founded a new congregation, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. Lathrop became the first mother superior, taking the name Mother Mary Alphonsa.

Through her work, the congregation opened several more homes throughout the early 1900s. Today, three homes established by the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer (now called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne), still provide free palliative care to terminally ill cancer patients. These include: Sacred Heart Home in Philadelphia, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, and Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y.

The Last Rose of Summer

Lathrop died in her sleep on July 9, 1926, at the age of 75. She was buried on the grounds of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. In 2003, she was declared a “Servant of God,” the first step towards canonization. In 2013, a “Decree of Validity” from the Vatican confirmed her consideration for sainthood.


MERRITT HENSON, RN, BSN, OCN, SANE, is a registered nurse, freelance medical writer, and Lyme disease advocate.


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