My accidental discovery of nursing hero Edith Cavell

What do a snowstorm, a Christmas gift, and a set of postcards have in common? They all contributed to my discovery of British nurse Edith Cavell.

I first discovered Cavell three days after Christmas during a raging blizzard when I picked up a book, ‘Postcards of Nursing’, that was given to me. With the lights having gone out, I sat by the fireplace for warmth and light to read it. I was looking at postcards of nurses from every country when I came to a series of postcards and a history about Edith. The story riveted me. How could I have been a nurse for almost four decades and not have heard about this amazing nurse?

Edith Cavell started a nurse training school in Brussels, Belgium, in 1912. When the Germans occupied Belgium during The Great War, she was approached by the underground who asked her to help them rescue Allied soldiers. Even though she was putting her life at risk, she agreed. ‘Which one of these soldiers do I turn away?” she asked herself. The answer was none of them.

After nine months of diligently harbouring wounded and separated soldiers, she was arrested, tried without legal representation, and executed by the Germans for treason in October 1915. Edith didn’t intend on being a hero, but destiny had other plans for her. She had no idea she would end up in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful wars in history and, many would argue, her execution was the turning point in getting the Americans to join the Allies.

In 2005, I made my first visit to England to research her story. I first went to her statue off Trafalgar Square. It was the first of many trips to England and Belgium to gain enough information to write my book. Fatal Decision: Edith Cavell WWI Nurse was first published in 2011. This year it has been re-edited for the British audience and is under new publication with a new title, ‘Fatal Destiny: Edith Cavell WWI Nurse.’ It is not your typical history book, and is written in a novel format because I wanted people to walk with her on her journey.

In 2013, I was invited to join the Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital nurses in their yearly memorial ceremony for Edith Cavell. I was honored and thrilled to be there. This year I was invited not only to Norwich, but also to London to join them in their annual ceremony on the date of her death, October 12. Representing the American Red Cross, I felt very humbled to be a part of her extraordinary legacy.

Having read the book, nurses in the United States tell me they have found strength and courage in her example. They have discovered a new pride in what they do. Many agree that her sacrifice and message is what nursing is truly all about. If we think of her every time we care for a patient, no matter how difficult, her legacy will not be lost, but will live on in each of us.

About the author

Terri Arthur is a nurse and author of the historical novel Fatal Destiny: Edith Cavell WWI Nurse. She has lectured on Edith Cavell to historical societies, colleges, nursing groups, literary groups and nursing associations. She lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA.