Harriet Holbrook Smith (1897-1989) lived a fabulous life of adventure,
high educational achievement, world travel, professional accomplishment,
wide friendships, and much more. “Hat,” as she was fondly known, was
an exceptional person, loved and respected by many. Her long career
reached its pinnacle at the University of Washington where she retired
as an Associate Professor in the School of Nursing.
Seminal to her achievements were two “tours of duty” with the
Yale-in-China Program in Changsha, Hunan Province, China (1921-1924 and
1926-1927). These five years were filled with change in
China—culturally, politically, socially, militarily, and so much more.
Hat was right in the middle of these dynamic changes, discovering and
developing her self-knowledge and world view; her understanding of
humanity and human behavior, while mastering management, leadership and
diplomatic skills, and enhancing her wisdom.Harriet matured from a
“wild-eyed” political radical (see yearbook right), into a mature
professional, manager and leader of men and women.
We could go on and on. Personally, I consider Hat as being the wisest
person I have ever known.
The following letters home provide a “keyhole” vision into her last
year in Changsha. Especially interesting is the evolution of
political/revolutionary events from mostly an annoyance to tragedy and
the eventual Hospital and School closure, which were reopened later and
are still operating in China today.
You will discover how Hat mixes everyday experience, social engagements,
entrepreneurship and war, love and romance, friendship and professional
responsibilities, with balance, optimism, faith, hope and good humor.
Carolyn and Dennis Buckmaster (Carolyn is one of Harriet’s nieces)
Harriet spent almost four years in China (1921-1924), returning to
Seattle in 1924 to work with her father, Dr. Clarence Smith, in his
medical practice. By March of 1925 she was already wrestling with issues
regarding returning to China and other personal and professional
concerns. The following are excerpts of her letter to Miss Nina Gage,
Dean of the School of Nursing, providing insight into Harriet’s
motivations and personal values.
March 10, 1925 ~ Seattle, WA
Dear Miss Gage,
I hope you are duly impressed with the heading up top, which indicates
my Dad and I have the electrocuting parlors going now. I wear a uniform
and cap and all sorts of things, just like a nurse ‘n everything. I am
hoping it will give the establishment lots of face, although my
honorable parent is rather fed up with expression, which I use to him
when he wants to saw and hammer, or mend the electric light wires, or
unscrew the plumbing. He remarks, “It seems you have learned a lot of
foolishness in China.” He is doubtless right, and I might add he does
not know the half of it, and that it is not all the sort of foolishness
that he think. Thank you very much for the letter I received a couple of
days ago. It finds me in somewhat of a quandary. I think I might quite
truthfully say, were it not for family complications, I would agree to
return to China in the fall. I cannot say I am much thrilled by the race
and tear of business competition, which, though glorifying work, as the
minister said last Sunday, still does not thrill one with its motive,
however necessary. I remember one time, in the course of my wayward
thoughts, I “thunk” to myself it would be good sport to stay a
couple of years in China; and then a couple in the Philippines, and then
a couple in India, etc., but somehow I reckoned, without the possibility
I might by chance become attached to one of these places, which is just
what has happened as regards China in general and Changsha in
particular. I try to ponder carefully whether it is the idea of China or
whether it is the idea of the H.Y.H. (Hsiang-Ya Hospital) that gives me
a funny feeling, and as my time was nearly wholly spent in the latter
institution, I naturally conclude it is the answer.
Now about things here, and how the wind blows, etc. For the present, I
might modestly remark I am quite indispensable to my Father. He’s not
as young as he once was, but has the idea shared by many past middle
life he is just as young as he ever was, and all that. I wouldn’t go
so far as to argue the subject, but I am quite willing to admit I think
he is kidding himself. In other words, he’s a bit old, though far from
aged, but he does occasionally forget details, and sometimes doesn’t
quite grasp the situation quick as three winks, and trying out this new
branch of electrotherapy he is absolutely dependent on me. Furthermore,
the new equipment was a bit “costive” as Branch used to say, so the
thought of hiring and training is a terrible thought in light of the
other expenses. Of course, this is one of the things which we expect
will be lightened after a few months, the expectation being we shall be
so busy as to be obliged to work another assistant into the ropes. In
that case, she would doubtless be quite capable of doing the mechanical
part all right.
At present there is a very important aspect of morale which the daughter
of the firm can impart, and which an outsider might not give. Therefore,
the merest insinuation I might be thinking of fleeing to the ends of the
earth instills great sorrow into the mind of both Father and Mother.
Although they have brought us up under the teachings that missionaries
are sort of saints on earth, and the most wonderful thing a person could
be is a missionary, still they seem to have a rather different feeling
when the matter is definitely applied to their daughter, yours truly. It
seems odd, yet is one of the inconsistencies of which we are all guilty.
They realize I can hardly expect to spend my declining years running a
diathermy machine, or turning an ultraviolet light onto a skinny baby,
but the idea of going back to China in the near future is a very
distressing one. And, after all, in spite of my globetrotting
tendencies, I appreciate the fact that I owe something to the peace of
mind of my parents, however dull and uninteresting I may occasionally
find the daily routine, and the rather stupid evenings.
I continue to nourish the sense of humor, which Aggie found so boorish
and common, so I cannot say I am fading away under the present regime. I
guess, therefore, the conclusion to all this harangue would be that,
though I should like very much to definitely say I should like to be
presented for reappointment—if that’s the correct terminology—I
cannot commit myself at this time. It is altogether possible affairs may
be so arranged later on that I might be able to go, but am not sure now.
I sometimes wonder if the next Chinese New Year’s might not be a good
time to hike out. That’s about the time of year someone usually is
sick or gets engaged or something. Isn’t that about right? I suppose
the Board ought to go ahead and appoint the full quota of others, as I
am so indefinite. All this indefinite business is very irksome; as I
realize there is a danger in never accomplishing what one postpones too
long. I shall avoid that pitfall. If you have any brilliant inspirations
about the situation, I should be glad to hear them, but I cannot see
anything to be done right now.
I’m getting to be a reg’lar Public Speaker. I usually hold forth
twice a week or so, sometimes at luncheons, or at afternoon club
meetings, and once at a tea where they took in $6o. Shades of Strunky!
All I need is 300 rice bowls and a Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, neither
of which I have. I get quite a kick out of it, which shows to what a
depth I have fallen, and I sometimes think with horror of what my
facetious little friends from China would say, if they were to see me!
Please remember me to any of the friends you may see in New York or New
Haven or wherever, and with very best wishes to yourself,
Ultimately, the call of China wins out over family responsibilities.
February 15, 1926 ~ Aboard SS President Jefferson
I see I did not mention the 155 dead Chinese aboard, being taken home
for burial; also six coffins in case any others die en route!
Isn’t that cheerful? I still continue to like Mr. McGregor very much.
He’s nice. Mrs. Plumer has persuaded me to accompany her and Mr.
Archer across Japan by rail. We shall leave Yokohama in the morning and
reach Kyoto in the evening, spend the night there, and go to Kobe the
next morning or afternoon to catch our ship again. I have not
communicated with the Osawas but shall hope to see them or Miss Denton
or both. Either or both would be a treat to travelers.
We are a day late due to a storm, which delayed us two days ago. It was
really a gorgeous affair; high waves breaking over the bow and spray
clear across the ship. Mr. Archer and I watched it all one morning from
the large porthole over the Purser’s office on the main deck. He has
as much enthusiasm over such foolishness as I have myself. I only hope
the newspapers did not give lurid accounts of disaster or storm
besetting us. No one was the least bit worried and only a few felt at
One night we were playing bridge in the social hall, that is Mrs.
Howard, Dr. Monroe and Mrs. Hertig and I, and the orchestra came
skidding over onto us; then I found myself mixed up with the saxophone
and finally landed on the Victrola which is fastened down. Everyone
completed similar journeys and we wished there had been a movie camera
there to take a picture. It would have made a good comedy. I’ll write
more en route to Shanghai. This will catch the Jackson I think.
March 12, 1926 ~ Changsha
One of the medical students, now an intern from Soochow, is a long,
lanky person, a good tennis player, and very much interested in his work
too. An obstetrical patient came in with a history of a baby born the
night before, and she had an old dirty coolie shoe tied onto the
placenta cord, which was retained. They found that she had excessive
fluid and a twin, quite premature and apparently dead. The doctor in
charge left when the patient was returned to the ward, but this medical
student named Liu happened to spy the baby in the garbage bucket and
fished it out and after an hour had successfully restored it to life.
Then, feeling that as everyone else had deserted it, that it belonged to
him, he carefully wrapped it up in blankets, put a wad of cotton on its
head and put it in a chair in one resident’s room, and then went off
to play tennis!
The first I knew of it was the resident coming to tell me there was a
baby in his room. Dr. Liu had covered the chair with a gown and pinned
on a sign, “Be careful! My baby in here!” I put an electric light
inside to keep it warm when I found out about it and then we moved it to
the babies’ nursery.
Just as I was ready to go off duty, Dr. Liu came back and we went to see
about the infant, finding him very blue, occasionally crying and looking
about 99 years old as preemie babies usually do. We labored over the
poor thing for another hour, but he finally died as we had expected and
we each went back home for dinner. The whole thing was quite typical of
this student, which is a very hopeful sign, as most are not so vitally
interested in the patients’ welfare, particularly a case like that. It
was not even on his service.
May 27, 1926 ~ Changsha
Two of the bachelors and I were the only ones from Yali, so after being
landed on this side, we tried to get a boat to bring us to our own
steps. After a bling down the bund yelling lustily for a sampan, we
finally got one and drifted cozily to our own street. By the time we got
home it was about 2 AM., I think. We sat on my porch trying to think of
what to do next, so I suggested we go swimming, back in the river where
we came from. The bachelors were cheery enough to think it great so Art
went over to his house for his suit. I put mine on and gave Les another.
I thought it was a wonderful idea, but just as I was ready to go, Les
said he was afraid the gate man would report it to headquarters, as we
couldn’t possibly be back before about 5:50. Art waited at his house
for us and then went to bed, remarking later he never knew Les to be so
sober a drunk that he thought of discretion. The result was that Les and
I sat on the porch until after 4 in a coil of bathing suits, counting
the stars, and being much more scandalous I maintain as he had to pass
said gate man going back to his rooms. Honestly, I don’t know why it
is I get such crazy streaks now and then out here, whereas at home I
more or less behave. You can understand how it is that home life seemed
Excerpted from "Healing, Romance & Revolution: Letters from an American Nurse in 1926 China" by Dennis Buckmaster. Copyright © 2013 by Dennis Buckmaster. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.