Helen Fairchild (November 21, 1885 – January 18, 1918) was an American nurse who served as part of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, and who became known for her wartime letters to her family in the U.S., which vividly depicted the realities of combat nursing during World War I. She died of post-operative complications after surgery for a gastric ulcer while on duty with British base hospital #10/#16 on the western front.
Helen was born in Turbot Township, Milton, in central Pennsylvania to Ambrose and Adda Dunkle Fairchild in 1885. She was the fourth of seven children and worked on the family farm in her earlier years. In 1913, Fairchild graduated from Pennsylvania Hospital and worked as a nurse. After the United States joined World War I, Fairchild and 63 other nurses from the hospital volunteered for the American Expeditionary Forces in May 1917. After arriving in France, Fairchild volunteered for front-line duty at casualty clearing station #4 at the Third Battle of Ypres on July 22, 1917, where she was exposed to heavy shelling including the use of mustard gas. She served as a combat nurse during the Third Battle of Ypres.
Fairchild had a medical history of abdominal pain, which worsened after her combat experience. By Christmas 1917 she was vomiting after every meal. X-rays revealed that a large gastric ulcer was obstructing her pylorus. She underwent surgery for the ulcer on January 13, 1918. At first she recovered well but then lapsed into a coma and died five days later. The post-mortem examination suggested that she died as a result of hepatic complications from the chloroform used as the anesthesia during her operation, possibly worsened by her previous exposure to mustard gas.
The Nurses' Post of the American Legion in Philadelphia was named the Helen Fairchild Nurses' Post #412 in her honor. She is registered in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
- Bernard A. Cook. Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present. p. 175.
- Vern L. Bullough, Lilli Sentz, MLS (2004). American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary:, Volume 3. Springer Publishing Company. p. 83.
- Virtual Library entry for Helen Fairchild, with letters and other documents
- Spartacus Educational entry for Helen Fairchild
- Military.com entry for Helen Fairchild
- Helen Fairchild on Find A Grave