Remembering the 'Nurse from New York'
May 1, 2023 | View PDF
"Here is something you might like to take a look at," Dad commented back in spring 2005 as he brought me a worn manila colored bundle tied with string. Dad had been puttering around looking for something on the shelves where he kept important items, while I sat on the nearby couch at his home in Homer tying a quilt.
Before removing the quarter inch thick string, I read the address: "Miss Martine Burdick; Alaska Nurses Association; Seward San; Bartlett, Alaska," and noted the February 1954 postmark. What treasure would these envelopes hold? I knew so little of this early history of my mother.
Mom (Martine Burdick Clayton) was part of the last class to be eligible for the federal Cadet Nurse Corps program at Syracuse University, a World War II program. She entered the SU School of Nursing in 1945, completed the three-year program in September 1948 and then went on to receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in January1950. After graduation, she was a staff nurse and an assistant instructor in nursing arts at the Wilson Memorial Hospital in Johnson City, New York.
Sponsored by the Board of Methodist Missions, Mom arrived in Seward, Alaska, in June 1951 to serve at the Seward Sanatorium, a facility created specifically for treatment of tuberculosis. The San, as she called it, had a 150-bed capacity in the converted Ft. Raymond army barracks. During its operation from July 1946 until July 1958, approximately 1,200 Alaskans were hospitalized and treated there. Most patients recovered and went on to lead active lives.
It was in 1998 at Mom's memorial service, that I first heard about the 1951 arrival to Alaska of "The Nurse from New York". Quoting the daughter of Dr. Frances Phillips, a Seward Sanatorium physician-surgeon, "Martine anticipated meeting the surgeon and Medical Director, whom she would assist, and was very concerned that she make a good first impression. She dressed in her finest clothes and high heel shoes to disembark from the steamship 'Alaska'. As she walked down the board ramp off the ship, one of her heels got caught in between the boards and she literally tripped out of her shoe to meet the doctor and group of Methodist women waiting at the bottom of the ramp. Embarrassment didn't last long. It was time to roll up her sleeves, forget the high heel shoes, and get right to work at the hospital where she was so desperately needed. She became one of my father's most dependable nurses."
Sitting with Dad in 2005, the first envelope in the old bundle contained a black and white photo of Seward Memorial Hospital and several labeled small photos of various aspects of tuberculosis care. As Dad and I examined the contents of the other envelopes, we found copies of Board of Nursing correspondence for the territory of Alaska for the year 1954. Apparently, Mom was the secretary and on the nominating committee for officer positions. There was blank stationery and envelopes (all bearing the Alaska Board of Nursing letterhead), sheets of carbon paper, and a list of the nurses and their addresses.
Mom continued serving on the Alaska Board of Nursing in various positions, including Chairman, during the years that Alaska went through the changes and adjustments of transitioning from territory to state. I already had in my files a letter dated March 1958 from territorial governor Mike Stepovich, regarding appointment of Mom to the Board of Nursing for the Territory of Alaska.
Since I was too young to remember, Dad described her little "office" - a small porch at the front of the house where we lived in Spenard. Mom attended a national Board of Nursing convention somewhere back on the East Coast in the fall of 1960 when I was in kindergarten. Dad also told how he took care of us four kids in the little campground out on the Homer Spit when my brother was only a couple of months old in the summer of 1962, just so Mom could attend the state convention held that year in Homer. In 1963, when our family moved to Glennallen for Dad's new job with Copper Valley Electric, Mom turned her duties over to someone else.
Glennallen's small Faith Hospital was staffed with missionary nurses, so after a few years Mom attended classes at Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University) to earn credits and receive a teaching certificate. That is the Mom I knew - a teacher - as did the folks in the Copper River Valley. Long after her passing, during my years living in Slana, if someone learned I was the daughter of Martine Clayton, I heard many good comments. I learned of specific examples of her unique teaching style and the positive effect she had on their children. These were people not just from Glennallen, but McCarthy and Slana as well. Mom very successfully changed careers in mid-life, a generation before that became more common.
Old records, which long before could have been discarded, had turned into a history treasure for me, adding more to my knowledge about the "Nurse from New York". A lady I remember with love and honor this Mother's Day 2023.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at email@example.com.