First Stop: Toulons

Over the next week and a half or so, thanks to the  Leanne Freas Trout Travel Exploration Grant, generously provided by the French department, I will be visiting sites related to my quest to re-discover the story of Katharine Baker, class of 1892’s service as a nurse.

The first stop on the trip is Toulon, a rather large port city in the south of France. Here, Frances Baker cared for her sister when she fell ill.

In winter of 1918, Katharine Baker contracted pneumonia and chose to continue working rather than rest and heal. As a result, she became seriously ill and travelled south where her sister Frances was working at what is referred to as “Dr. Cuneo’s hospital near Cannes.”

After some searching, Professor Del Testa discovered the Sainte Anne Military Training Hospital in Toulon. It has a wing dedicated to Dr. Cuneo, is relatively close to Cannes, and was definitely used during the war. We agreed that this almost certainly the place where Katharine was healed.

Upon arriving, it was immediately clear to me why patients were brought here to be nursed back to health. Even now in early January the weather was pleasantly warm and the area was incredibly picturesque and peaceful. The town, situated between the sea and the mountains, has a relaxing beauty to it.

At the hospital, I discovered that the museum advertised on their website no longer exists, but the staff were very welcoming and eager to help. Within minutes I found myself on the top floor seated in the hospital director’s office discussing ways to locate any useful information or documents. They had me write down everything I could tell them about Katharine and promised to do everything they can to find records. Though I technically left empty handed, I hope to hear from our new friends at Sainte Anne’s with an exciting discovery soon!

Unfortunately I was not able to see the hospital exactly as Katharine and Frances would have seen it because it was moved to a more modern building and the original site is now a private military zone (as it is a military hospital). However, I was able to catch glimpses ( and a few sly photos) of it through the gates and got a sense of it. The ground of the complex consist of a large courtyard filled with palm trees and other greenery surrounded by plain but attractive yellow buildings.

Too soon it was time for me to catch the train back to my hotel and I decided to pass the time by reading Little Women (if you have not read it yet and plan to later, I suggest you skip ahead to the next paragraph so it isn’t spoiled for you) and I as struck by the parallel between the book and the women I had been researching. In the story, Beth becomes seriously ill and is nursed by her dedicated sister Jo. She briefly seems to be healed, but she never fully recovers and Jo continues to care for her until she passes away. I immediately thought that Frances must have felt just as Jo did; desperately trying to heal her sister, and for a short time believing that she’s well again, only to be crushed by the reality that she could not be saved. Much of my research revolves around Katharine but for once, I saw things throughout Frances’ eyes.

As with all of the on-site visits, I feel that I understand the people I’m researching more than ever thanks to this trip. Seeing what Katharine and Frances saw and walking streets they may have walked paints a picture that no document or military record ever could. Though I hope to hear back from the friendly staff at Sainte Anne’s, I am already preparing for the next leg of the trip: Soissons and the Chemin des Dames battlefield!

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