An Army Nurse Sounds Off on Basic Training and the OR, 1944

Lola Mae Baird Mathews was an operating room supervisor at Barnes Hospital from 1939-1943. In 1943, her last summer at Barnes Hospital, she worked hard at a course in chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, because she wanted to earn a degree. Still, it seems her considerable knowledge failed to earn her the respect she felt she deserved when she took her next post at Brooke General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

When she wrote the following letter to Evarts Graham, MD in 1944, she was first lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps in San Antonio, Texas. Graham was surgeon in chief at Barnes Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and professor of surgery as well as the department head at Washington University School of Medicine, from 1919 to 1951. She wrote to Graham about her basic training in the Army and early experiences in the operating rooms of Brooke General Hospital. It seems that she greatly regretted leaving her position working with Graham at Barnes.


Letter from Lola Baird to Evarts Graham

Brooke Gen. Hosp.
Ft. Sam Houston, Tex.
May 14, 44

My Dear Dr. Graham –

I must begin this letter by saying that your wish has been granted. I have been very lonesome to be back at Barnes with you. That is a “restricted” confession because I wouldn’t want any one to know that I am sorry of my choice.

I arrived here for duty on April 15. Basic training was first on the schedule. It was most interesting and consisted of lectures, restricted movies, lots of drill, gas masks (and we really wore our masks into a gas chamber), demonstrations and then application of every thing – even pitching a pup tent. And oh before I forget – every morning we had that 1-2-3-4 “stuff.” After the first week, I was so stiff and sore that I really had difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning. We wore the regular fatigue suits – helmets, leggins and G.I. shoes. By the end of each day, I was truly tired.

At the end of basic training we were given a diploma. There were 21 girls in the class and all but 5 were shipped out of here.

I am assigned to the operating room, and I must say that the suite of 6 rooms (air conditioned) is very beautiful. Tuesday and Friday are orthopedic surgery and I have charge and scrub. On the other days I scrub in the other rooms. We have student nurses (male) every 6 or 8 weeks so there is practically the same teaching program as we have at Barnes.

The chest surgeon here is Maj. Paulson. I scrubbed for him several times last week. You will be interested to know that all sutures are cotton. Can you imagine a complete closure with interrupted cotton sutures? It is just as you think – “awkward.” The simple lobectomy we did the other day took four and a half hours. They do not have the rib approximator here so you can see how difficult it must be to close the chest with #50 cotton.

The neuro surgeon, Maj. Robertson, has a radio in his operating room, and when the situation becomes “tough going,” he has the radio turned on. The other day the radio was turned on and the selection played was “Sugar Blues.” It was a good thing that I had a mask on to conceal the smile that crept over my face, because I was thinking of Dr. Sachs and what “Sugar Blues” would have done to him.

There are few favors or recognitions in the Army as I have already known. At your convenience and if you are not too busy, I wonder if you would write a casual note to the commanding officer here and inform him of any qualifications that you think I might possess. His name is Gen. George C. Beach.

May I say again, confidentially, that I miss all of you very much, and I am so sorry of my choice. There is much to learn here, so I have that thought to keep me happy.

My regards to Mrs. Graham.


Miss Baird


About Lola Mae Baird Mathews (1912-1970)

Lola Mae Baird was born May 8, 1912, in Vesper, Kansas to John C. Baird and Julia Corbett. When she wrote this letter from San Antonio in 1944, she had just celebrated her 34th birthday.

The U.S. censuses for 1920 and 1930 show Baird living with her family first in Vesper, Kansas and then in nearby Lincoln, Kansas. In 1920, her father was an engineer and mother worked in their household. Lola was the oldest of the family’s three children. Her mother was a widow by the time the 1925 Kansas state census was taken, and in 1930 was listed as the head of household working as a lodging house keeper in a private home.

Before Baird came to work at Barnes Hospital as a nurse from 1939-1943/1944, she was trained at Christ’s Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. In 1933, she was 21 years old and living in Topeka as a student nurse. From 1935-1939 she was a graduate nurse in Hutchinson, Kansas.

She married William A. Mathews Jr., of Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1945, in Oklahoma City. In 1959, a she was a nurse at the Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Hospital. She died on December 28, 1970.



The Hutchinson News from Hutchinson, Kansas on August 2, 1939

Correspondence with Dr. LeRoy McMaster, Professor of Chemistry, 1943; on Lola Baird; Series 1: General Correspondence, 1919-1957, Box 16, Folder 120: B to Bar, Evarts A. Graham, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, Washington University School of Medicine.

Find a Grave index. Find a Grave, Ancestry .com Library ed.

U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015

1920 United States Federal Census for Lola M. Baird, Kansas, Lincoln, Vesper, District 0086, Library edition.

1930 United States Federal Census for Lola M. Baird; Kansas, Lincoln, Lincoln, District 0013, Library edition.

City directory for Topeka, Kansas, 1933, page 47,, Library edition.

City directory for Hutchinson, Kansas, 1935: page 34; 1937: page 570 & 1939: page 560,, Library edition.

Pottawatomie, Oklahoma Marriage License record no 29, page 274, Library edition.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, City Directory, 1959, page 536, for Lola M Mathews, Library edition.

Ibid, U.S., Social Security Applications, and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line] for Lola Mae Mathews. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.