Remembrance ceremony honors Emory nurse who served in World War I

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | May 3, 2019

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Janet Christenbury
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jmchris@emory.edu


In April of 1919, while still in France, Camille O’Brien contracted spinal meningitis and was cared for by nurses in her unit. However, she died from the infection on April 18, 1919.

On the 100th anniversary of her death, a special remembrance ceremony was held for Emory nurse Camille O’Brien, the only member of the Emory Unit to die in France during World War I. Dozens of people came out to Greenwood Cemetery on April 18, 2019, for the special occasion.

“We wanted to organize a graveside memorial to honor and remember Camille as being a hero to so many soldiers who were injured and sick,” says Michael Hitt, historian and organizer of the ceremony. “She was left in an unmarked grave, so we are here to finish what was left undone. This ceremony gives her current family the opportunity to say a proper goodbye, while marking her grave with a special headstone.”

In 1913, O’Brien entered the Saint Joseph’s Infirmary School of Nursing in Atlanta and graduated in 1916. She had a year’s worth of nursing experience when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, and O’Brien joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. In April 1918, she was transferred to the Emory Unit and sent to Camp Gordon, north of Atlanta. From there, she and other Emory nurses were sent to Blois, France, where she worked in Base Hospital 43 caring for wounded and sick soldiers.

Largely staffed by physicians and nurses from Emory, the unit operated Base Hospital 43, treating more than 9,000 patients over six months. O’Brien often worked 14-hour shifts, with the lead surgeon from Emory, caring for the soldiers.

World War I ended in November of 1918. In January of 1919, the Emory Unit returned to the U.S., but O’Brien, along with other nurses and doctors, volunteered to stay behind, continuing to care for the soldiers.

In April of 1919, while still in France, O’Brien contracted spinal meningitis and was cared for by nurses in her unit. However, she died from the infection on April 18, 1919. She was given a military funeral and buried with the soldiers in France. When the Emory Unit in the U.S. learned of her death, Emory University created a brass memorial tablet in her honor. After being refurbished, the brass tablet is now on display at Emory University Hospital.

Unknown to the closest relatives of O’Brien today, her body was returned to Georgia in 1921 and buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Southwest Atlanta. A large funeral was held in 1921, attended by the American Legion, the Red Cross, nurses from Saint Joseph’s Infirmary, members of the Emory Unit, her then family and more. The family did not put a headstone at her grave site following her 1921 burial, which led O’Brien’s current family members to think she was still buried in France.

“I did not know that Camille had been brought back to Atlanta in 1921 until recently,” says William Cawthon, great nephew to O’Brien.

On April 18, 2019, O’Brien’s family and many others watched as a new headstone on O’Brien’s grave site was unveiled. A bugler played “Taps” while a World War I Honor Guard stood at attention. Hitt, the historian, told the story of O’Brien during the ceremony and reminded everyone of her heroic acts. It was a special day for all.

Headstone
O'Brien's New Headstone

Video: Photos of the ceremony

“The remembrance service gives closure to the family and makes me very proud,” says Cawthon.

“This was the perfect opportunity to remember Camille and her selfless acts of caring for others,” says Hitt.