It was July, 1918, when 23-year-old Albemarle County, Va., native Camilla Louis Wills (DIPLO `17) boarded the USS Cartago and sailed to France.
“Katie” to those who knew her was heading to the front lines of World War I to be an American Red Cross Nurse at Base Hospital No. 41 in Saint Denis, just north of Paris.
Though she was well-educated and prepared—at UVA, Camp Dix, NJ, and Ellis Island, NY—the work was intense, and often overwhelming. A day after Wills’ arrival, more than 100 casualties flooded the “hospital,” a medical compound fashioned in and around the École de la Légion d'Honneur, an 18th century school. Arriving men needed medical attention, hot food, dressing changes, and baths. Many bore wounds that needed regular cleaning and irrigation, and shrieked in pain through the night. Sleeping when she could, Wills worked feverishly that fall, tending patients during the height of the 1918 influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe and the United States alike.
“There are so many awfully sick boys that we don’t have any hours off duty during the day and work overtime at night. I am in the dressing room at present so of course see all the wounds, a gruesome sight.”Camilla "Katie" Wills (1894-1994, DIPLO 1917)
“There are so many awfully sick boys that we don’t have any hours off duty during the day and work overtime at night,” Wills wrote in her diary, where she faithfully documented her patient load, work schedule, and the chilly French weather. “I am in the dressing room at present so of course see all the wounds, a gruesome sight.”
Wills cared for hundreds of wounded soldiers between August, 1918, and January, 1919, an experience that, after WWI’s end, compelled her return to school and pursuit of a career in teaching and public health. Had she had a stronger foundation in biology prior to her service, Wills realized, she could have better alleviated many soldiers’ needless suffering. Teaching health education, physiology, and biology for the remainder of her career, Wills retired to Charlottesville in the early 1960s, the place she had always considered home.
Wills’ diary, among hundreds of other artifacts, are currently on display at the Harrison-Small Gallery, at the UVA Library, as part of UVA Health System exhibit “200 Years of Research, Learning and Care” now through January, 2019.