From the Jersey Shore to Siberia: Alice Eck’s Remarkable Journey | News, Sports, Jobs
Nurses have always been heroic. Their work during the current pandemic reminds us of this every day. A century ago, a young Jersey Shore woman treated patients in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic, then joined the American Red Cross and traveled to Siberia to treat soldiers and civilians during the Russian Civil War.
Alice Anastasia Eck, one of eight children, was born August 5, 1892, in Nippeno, Lycoming County, to William and Lena Eck. She grew up on the family farm in “City of Eck”, an area near Jersey Shore in which many members of the Eck family resided. She attended St. Mary’s Parochial School and Bastress Grammar School.
At 21, she moved to Norristown, where she worked as an orderly at the Hospital for the Insane. From 1915 to May 1918, she studied at the Jewish Hospital Training School (now Albert Einstein Medical Center) in Philadelphia. Her training included midwifery, as well as male and child care. She received high marks for conduct, personality, initiative and ability. The school principal described her as one of the best nurses in her class and said she would do a great job wherever she was sent. She was offered a permanent position at the Jewish Hospital, but declined in hopes of joining the American Red Cross.
Registered as a nurse
On July 31, 1918, she registered as a nurse in Pennsylvania, and on September 2 submitted her application to the American Red Cross. She listed Camp Meade as her preference and indicated that she was available immediately and willing to serve as long as needed.
On September 18, 1918, the city of Philadelphia held its fourth Liberty Loan Drive Parade along 23 blocks of Broad Street. The next day, the first cases of Spanish flu were reported at the Philadelphia shipyard. As the death toll rose, hospitals sent out an outbreak emergency call. Alice responded, joining the emergency nursing service on October 12. Due to the number of medical professionals serving in World War I, nurses were in short supply, so Alice could not be released for Red Cross service.
On November 10, 1918, a day before the signing of the armistice ending the war, Alice’s brother, Clarence Eck, was killed at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne. By the time, a few months later, when Alice was free to start her career in the foreign service, she was no longer needed for war service, so she was attached to the Czech-Slovak unit, part of the Red Cross mission in Siberia. The presence of the American Red Cross in Russia was necessary because, in the summer of 1918, the United States had joined England, France, Italy and Japan in the fight to prevent the communist takeover of Russia.
Alice left San Francisco on April 24, 1919, and arrived in Vladivostok, Russia on May 18. One of around 500 doctors and nurses deployed in the region, she arrived in the midst of the Russian Civil War, when the White Army was battling the Bolsheviks for control of Siberia. Poverty, starvation and disease raged and the Red Cross struggled to provide care for thousands of people along the 4,100 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Conditions in hospitals and clinics horrified American medical personnel, who struggled to impose order and to feed, clothe and educate service members and civilians. Hunger, overcrowding and frequent troop movements led to a rampant increase in typhus, a virulent disease caused by lice. The Red Cross fought typhus by using railway carriages as stations where people were groomed, disinfected and given clean clothes and food, an initiative known as the Great White Train.
From mid-June to August, Alice worked mainly in the surgical department of the Omsk hospital, also serving briefly in Irkutsk. On November 14, she was sent to the US Army’s No. 4 Field Hospital in Verkhne-Udinsk to help deal with the flu epidemic.
Back in the United States
By January 1920 it was clear that the Bolsheviks were winning the war. Alice was evacuated on January 15 with the 27th US Infantry. On February 3, she arrived in Vladivostok, from where she sailed to the United States aboard the USS Great Northern.
Suffering from a septic fever when she arrived home, Alice spent February to April recovering. She then joined the Association of Visiting Nurses. In 1924, Alice went to work as a community nurse for the United Pocahontas Coal Company in Crumpler, West Virginia. This is where she meets Robert Muir. They married in 1927 and had two children: Robert and Mary Alice. The family lived in Philadelphia and Upper Darby. In 1945, a brain tumor caused Alice’s left-sided paralysis and left her with severe loss of sight and hearing. When Robert died in 1962, Alice moved to Williamsport to live with her sisters Margaret and Loretta. From 1975 until her death in January 1985, she lived at Manoir Maria Joseph in Danville. Alice is buried with her husband at Langhorne.
Patricia A. Scott, originally from Williamsport, is a librarian and archivist. She worked at Penn State and Bucknell before retiring from Penn College in 2019. She volunteers at the Jersey Shore Historical Society and the Thomas Taber Museum. The article is part of the Lycoming County Women’s History Project series, at www.lycoming.edu/lcwhp.