Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 28: Clara Maass, Heroine the Fight Against Yellow Fever

Clara Louise Maass was born on June 28, 1876 in East Orange, New Jersey. She was the first of ten children, and was the daughter of Robert E. and Hedwig A. Maass, recent German immigrants to the United States.

Maass was kept busy during her childhood years, attending public school and accepting the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. As she reached her adolescent years she became a “mother’s helper” to another family. A mother’s helper was employed help care for the house and children. In return for her work in the home, she was rewarded with room and board, and given time to attend school.

She completed three years of school at East Orange High School before leaving school at the age of fifteen to work at the Newark Orphan Asylum for $10 a month. This local orphanage accepted orphans from age two to ten. Maass would send half of her monthly wages home to help her family. She was compassionate and caring for her charges, striving to help them emotionally and physically.

Many women were entering the nursing profession in the late 19th century, following the footsteps of early woman professional nurses, Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. They were symbols of compassionate womanhood and served as a guiding light to those who followed them. Both were legends and still alive in the 1890s – and were an inspiration to Maass..

Even though the minimum age for training to become a nurse was supposed to be twenty, Maass was only seventeen years old when she entered the recently created Christina Trefz Training School of Nurses in 1893. A nursing program had been institute in 1892 when two Red Cross nurses from Germany were recruited as teachers. Mrs.Christina Trefz, the wife of a local brewer, purchased lots and built Trefz Hall, which was designated as the “The School of Nursing”. The school was dedicated on November 30, 1893. The school was operated by the German Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, and was only the fourth such nursing school at that time in New Jersey – and the first in Newark. She would graduate among the first students to complete the course of study in 1895 after two years of intensive training, and went to work as a duty nurse at the German Hospital. In 1898 she was named as the head nurse of the institution, and was known as a hard worker and a person dedicated to the nursing profession. She was only twenty-one years old.

In 1898 the Spanish American War began. There was no Army Nurses Corps in existence at the time, so Maass volunteered as a contract nurse for the Army on October 1, 1898. She would serve in field hospitals with the Seventh Army Corps in several locations during the war – Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and finally Santiago, Cuba. More soldiers would become ill or would die from disease during the Spanish American War than were wounded – and it was Maass’s job, along with the other contract nurses, to care for them. She dealt with malaria, typhoid fever, and dysentery until she was discharged from Army service on February 5, 1899.

In November 1899 Maass again responded to a call for contract nurses and was sent to the Philippines – newly freed from Spanish control during the war and now a part of a new fledgling American empire. There she served as a nurse with the Eighth U.S. Army Corps. As the Philippine Insurrection against American control grew, more American troops had to be sent to the region – and again faced the deadly danger of disease. While in the Philippines she cared for soldiers suffering from smallpox, typhoid, and yellow fever.

Maass had to leave the Philippines before the end of her contract – not because she contracted yellow fever, but because she contracted another tropical disease, dengue fever. She was shipped back to the United States to recover in May 1900. She would soon be attracted to work again in Cuba.

Yellow fever had become a huge problem with the American troops occupying Cuba. Dr. Gorgas, who held the post in Cuba of Havana Sanitary Officer, originally thought that yellow fever was spread through unsanitary conditions, and conducted a city-wide sanitation effort – which failed to stem the spread of yellow fever. The disease became so rampant that the U.S. Surgeon General organized the Yellow Fever Commission – chaired by Dr. Walter Reed - to investigate how the disease was spread. Their findings revealed that the disease was spread through the bite of the female Stegomyia mosquito which, after taking blood from an infected person, would infect others by biting them as well. Gorgas was given the task of clearing the mosquitoes out of Havana. However, he pursued a different line of approach: developing an injection to prevent the disease from occurring.

In the fall of 1900 Gorgas sent out a call for volunteer nurses to help deal with yellow fever cases. Maass was well aware of the symptoms and suffering that went with this dreaded disease. Having seen the effects of the disease first-hand in the Philippines, Maass had developed a special interest in yellow fever, and a special desire to see the disease eradicated.

In October 1900 she had sufficiently recovered from the effects of her case of dengue fever that she could volunteer to serve in Cuba. Because the quality of her work with yellow fever victims in the Philippines, Maass was accepted as a nurse with the Yellow Fever Commission. After she arrived in Cuba she saw – and was hopeful of – the experiments being conducted to develop the medicine necessary to stop the disease. In 1901 she volunteered to be a part of a plan to develop immunization serum by allowing the volunteers to be bitten by infected mosquitoes, have a mild form of yellow fever, which would then create immunity for the volunteer. While the volunteers were told that they might die in the course of the experiment, they were offered an incentive of $100 for being subjects of the test. $100 was a considerable sum in 1900 dollars. An additional $100 was paid if the volunteer became ill.

In March 1901 Maass submitted to being bitten by infected mosquitoes, and developed a mild case of yellow fever. However, though the scientists and doctors involved were convinced that the mosquito was the primary means of transmitting the disease, there was still some doubt. Not all of the subjects who had been bitten by the infected mosquitoes developed yellow fever.

On August 14, 1901, Maass again submitted to being bitten by infected mosquitoes. The doctors hoped that her earlier mild case of yellow fever would immunize her against the disease. Unfortunately, they were soon to be disillusioned in their hopes.

Maass became severely ill with yellow fever on August 18th. She would die from the disease that had no cure on August 24th at the age of twenty-five. She was buried with military honors in Colon Cemetery, Havana, and in 1902 her remains would be reinterred at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.

While a number of the test volunteers did die as a result of the experiments, Maass was the only American, the only woman, and the only nurse to succumb to the disease. A public outcry soon put an end to human experiments.

Clara Maass and her heroic sacrifice might have remained as a little known sidelight of history except for Leopoldine Guinther. Guinther, who was a superintendent of Newark Memorial Hospital and a fighter in the war against yellow fever, saw a portrait of Maass and felt the need to be an advocate of recognition of her sacrifice. Through her efforts Maass’ original gravestone was replaced with a pink granite gravestone with a bronze plaque. In addition, the Newark German Hospital would be renamed the Clara Maass Hospital in 1952 to honor its former graduate. Finally, in 1976 a stamp would be issued honoring her, with the words “She gave her life” at the bottom. Clara Maass would be recognized and remembered for the heroine she was.


American Association for the History of Nursing
Clara Maass Medical Center
Find A Grave
Google Books: Past and Promise
Old Newark
St. Matthews


Photo of Clara Maass, Office of Medical History, U.S. Army
Orphans Asylum, Old Newark Web
German Hospital, Old Newark Web
Side view of Clara Maass, Find A Grave
1976 First Day Cover Envelope with Stamp Honoring Clara Maass, American Association for the History of Nursing
Clara Maass gravesite, Find A Grave


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