VA History – Harry Belle Durant Stark – WWI Nurse –Posted: March 1, 2016
The use of poisonous gasses proliferated during World War I with nearly one-third of the troops being exposed to them. We tend to think of only soldiers being exposed, but some nurses were, too. Harry Belle Durant Stark, an Army nurse, was one of the few known women to have been exposed to mustard gas during World War I.
Harry Belle Durant was born in Florida around 1891 and grew up in Alabama. She graduated from the Saint Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing in Birmingham in 1911. She became a Red Cross nurse, serving first with the Mexican Border Service, before becoming part of the Army Nurses Corps during World War I. She was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, from August 1916 to March 1917, before being assigned to Base Hospital No. 24 in Pittsburgh. She sailed for overseas war service in Europe on February 16, 1918 and was transferred to Evacuation Hospital No. 6 in France on July 22, 1918, where she served as Assistant Chief Nurse. Evacuation hospitals received patients directly from the front lines. She was exposed to mustard gas while working in the evacuation hospital and later returned to the U.S. in February 1919.
After the war she married Gustave Frederick Stark and started a family, but the effects from being gassed took a toll on her. At this time we know very little about her exposure, but everyone developed symptoms of some kind. In 1926 she was admitted to the Veterans Bureau hospital known as Castle Point in New York. After 1930 the Veterans Bureau became the Veterans Administration.
The prognosis for gassed soldiers and nurses was often grim, but varied, and was dependent on where on the body they were exposed, for how long, under what circumstances, and many other factors. Mustard gas could blister the eyes and skin, strip the lung’s mucous membrane, cause nausea and vomiting, and much more. Many veterans suffered from lung damage and ended up in tuberculosis hospitals. Some suffered brain damage and were admitted to psychiatric hospitals or committed suicide, and some, like Harry Belle Stark, never recovered the vigor of life. Numerous veterans who were gassed during the war spent years of their lives in veterans hospitals.
Harry Belle Durant Stark spent nearly 12 years of her life in the Castle Point veterans hospital and died on April 17, 1937. At the time, she had been in that hospital longer than anyone else ever had. She was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. We remember her service and sacrifice.
Photos: top right – Harrybelle Durant, around 1915, blog.genealogybank.com; left – Harrybelle Durant Stark, around 1918, familysearch.com
From: VA Historian