Helen Burnett Wood
Helen Burnett Wood, who lived in Evanston from 1909 to 1917, was one of the first casualties from an American unit during World War I

This upcoming Remembrance Day in the U.K., Sunday, November 14, a group of parishioners will gather at the Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh, Scotland, to remember those who died in all wars, and to honor especially those from the town of Musselburgh itself.

On that day, an American flag will be displayed during the Remembrance service.

The flag is one of two American flags flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in fall 2021 in honor of the service and sacrifice of Helen Burnett Wood (1888-1917), one of the first casualties from an American unit during World War I.

Wood, a nurse who volunteered to serve in the war, was born in Scotland and immigrated to Evanston in 1909.

One of the flags flown over the capitol came to Evanston, where Wood lived from 1909 to 1917. The other was sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Musselburgh, Wood’s hometown. In return, a Scottish flag, called a Saltire, was sent to Evanston.

Northesk Parish Church plaque
Northesk Parish Church, Great War memorial plaque. “Nurse Helen B. Wood” is first on the list. Her brother, William Wood, is the last name listed. Local Musselburgh historian Simon Fairnie’s relatives, including his grandfather, are also listed. (Courtesy of Simon Fairnie)

The Evanston History Center teamed up with Simon Fairnie, a historian in Musselburgh and member of Northesk Parish Church, to make the exchange possible. The church is home to a memorial plaque dedicated in 1919. It is inscribed with Helen Burnett Wood’s name and also the name of her brother, William Wood, who was killed in the Battle of Gallipoli.

The gesture of friendship brings the two towns together and underscores the global nature of even the most local of history.

Evanston War Memorial
Evanston War Memorial off Sheridan Road in Patriots Park. Helen Burnett Wood’s name is inscribed at the base of the memorial. (Photo by Jenny Thompson)

“We have been interested in Helen Burnett Wood’s story for many years,” said Jenny Thompson, Director of Education at the History Center. “Her life was representative of some of the most important qualities that the world could use more of: courage, generosity of spirit, intelligence and commitment. We wanted to do more to honor Wood, to connect our two towns, and to explore the history that unites us.”

Helen Burnett Wood
Helen Wood, 1914. (Photograph from the collections of the Evanston History Center)

Wood first traveled from Scotland to Evanston at the age of 17 and later immigrated permanently.

In 1914, she earned a nursing degree from the Evanston Training School for Nurses, a school affiliated with Evanston Hospital and Northwestern University.

In 1917, she volunteered to serve as a nurse with U.S. Base Hospital 12, a unit largely composed of Northwestern University students, alumni and faculty.

Wood set sail for France in May 1917. Tragically, she and fellow nurse Edith Ayres were killed when one of the ship’s guns misfired during a routine practice. Wood and Ayres were the first members of an American unit to be killed in service during World War I.

WWI casualties
Nurse Emma Matzen, pictured center, was wounded in the accident. She survived and went on to serve in France. She died in 1979 at the age of 100.

“It is a privilege to work to keep Helen Burnett Wood’s legacy alive,” said Eden Juron Pearlman, Executive Director of the Evanston History Center. “And we welcome the opportunity to solidify our relationship with the people in Musselburgh and the Northesk Parish Church.”

Northesk Parish Church
Northesk Parish Church, Musselburgh, Scotland. (Courtesy Simon Fairnie)

Juron Pearlman and Thompson sent a recorded video greeting that will be played in the Musselburgh church on Remembrance Day. The message includes an account of the locations in and near Evanston where Helen Burnett Wood is honored:

  • Memorial stones and plaques are on the grounds of Evanston Hospital and Northwestern University.
  • Wood’s name is inscribed on Evanston’s 1930 War Memorial in Patriots Park off Sheridan Road near the lakefront.
  • At Saint Luke’s Church on Hinman Avenue, a memorial Elm dedicated to the Evanston residents who died in World War I stands just outside the church’s courtyard “Battle Cloister.” Unveiled in 1920, the cloister honors Evanston residents who died in the war and their names, including Wood’s, are inscribed there. 
  • Just south of Evanston, in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery, is Wood’s grave. There, on the centennial of Wood’s death in 2017, a graveside remembrance was organized by Northwestern, which honors Wood as an alumna.
St. Luke's Church and plaque
St. Luke’s Church, Evanston, with Memorial Elm plaque: “The Memorial Elm. Planted Armistice Day 1921. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations.” (Photos by Jenny Thompson, left, and courtesy Evanston History Center)

Wood’s unit, U.S. Army Base Hospital 12, is well-documented within Northwestern’s historical collections. Kevin Leonard, University Archivist, said of Wood: “Her legacy of selflessness and bravery remains an example to successive generations. Ms. Wood also reminds us of the many strong and valued ties between the people of Scotland and those of her adoptive country, the United States. We celebrate those ties. And we remember Ms. Wood with the admiration and gratitude of our nations.”

Passaic Daily News, "Chicago Girls"
Passaic Daily News, May 21, 1917

The relationship between Musselburgh and Evanston represents a conversation within a global community. It is an attempt to reach across vast distances to dig into local history and find the common bonds that unite the two towns. Underscoring a further bond that transcends national boundaries, the Reverend Hayley Cohen, minister of the Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh, is American.

Fairnie concurred that the exchange “brought us closer and strengthened the common bond we have through Helen Wood.”

Thompson points out that Wood’s biography involves many themes that resonate today: immigration, women’s history, war and military service. Wood was one of thousands of women who volunteered during the war, none of whom received commissions, official veteran status or benefits.

Helen Burnett Wood’s funeral
Nurses Marching on Davis Street, Funeral March for Helen Wood, Evanston, 1917. They are marching east on Davis, just crossing Maple Avenue. The building on the right was 929 Davis Street, and it housed the A.O. Nicholson dry good store. It now houses Davis Pantry. The building behind them is also still extant. Gigio’s Pizzeria is located there. (Photograph from the collections of the Evanston History Center)

The Evanston History Center worked with the office of Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth to honor Wood by flying the two flags over the U.S. Capitol. The fact that Duckworth is herself a veteran adds a significant layer to the story.

The Evanston History Center continues to work on exploring Wood’s story and its many local and global connections. Already underway is a biography of Wood which will soon be made available by the History Center.

“There is a lot more to do,” Thompson noted, “stories such as this are multilayered and important. They have a lot to teach us. They connect us with history and to each other.”