top of page

The Heroic Student Nurses of Bellevue - a Guest Post

By Renee Yancy

I love doing the research for a historical novel. I have spent hours and fallen down many rabbit holes trying to discover, for example, how many gold sovereigns a young woman could carry hidden in the bottom of her portmanteau.

For More Precious Than Gold, I researched WWI and the Pandemic Flu of 1918 for two years before I started to write. I spent hours scouring through old newspapers of the time. I finished the manuscript in 2017, two years before COVID hit. Never in a million years did I ever think I would experience a pandemic in my own lifetime.

The main character is a student nurse at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Because most of Bellevue’s nurses had gone to France to care for sick and injured US military men, the student nurses took over care of all Bellevue’s patients. When the deadly pandemic flu of 1918 raged through New York City, the hospital administration gave the student nurses the option of going home.

Not a single one of Bellevue’s student nurse chose to leave. And eleven of those student nurses lost their lives while serving their patients. That’s dedication.

It is difficult today to imagine the horror of the situation these student nurses found themselves in. Today we have vaccinations, antibiotics, and antivirals. We have oxygen and ventilators, breathing treatments, and monoclonal antibodies. We have access to clean water and health care and almost instantaneous communication.

In 1918, all they had was morphine and aspirin powder.

Antibiotics and antivirals hadn’t been discovered yet, and the treatment regimen for flu patients consisted of aspirin, fluids, and morphine. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients, the student nurses could barely keep up with the all the blood and body fluids produced by the sick and dying.

There are some similarities between COVID and the 1918 flu. But the 1918 flu killed more than 100 million people around the world and still stands as the deadliest single incident in world history.

Usually, flu affects the very young and the elderly the most. But this flu disproportionately affected people in the 20 to 40 age group―people in the prime of their lives. In New York City alone, over 100,000 children were left orphans. Because of the profound cyanosis that people experienced with this flu, unless you had known their nationality before their deaths, you wouldn’t be able to tell what it was, because the bodies were so dark from oxygen deprivation.

Then, as now, cities and states set up and enforced quarantines, people wore masks, and places of business shut down. New York City had a fairly proactive Health Department for the time.

However, other cities, such as Philadelphia, chose to ignore the early warnings about this influenza and decided not to cancel a WWI war bonds parade. 200,000 people attended, and a week later, 4500 people in Philadelphia were dead of the influenza.

The Pandemic Flu of 1918 depressed the average life expectancy of adults in the US by almost 10 years. There actually were three waves of the flu. It was the second wave, in the autumn of 1918, that was the most lethal. You could be fine in the morning, sick at noon, and dead at midnight. Horrifying.

The Pandemic Flu of 1918 killed more military men than the actual warfare did. If you have access to your family genealogy, you can check deaths in 1918, and if their age was between 20 and 40, there’s a very good chance that the pandemic flu was the cause.

The hardest part of writing this book was deciding who would die of the flu. I didn’t want to kill any of my characters, because I had grown attached to them! But I knew that in the real world, the odds were that several people in Kitty’s circle would have died of the 1918 flu.

Author Bio:

More Precious Than Gold, the sequel to The Test of Gold, is here! It's set against the backdrop of WWI and the Pandemic Flu of 1918. I finished the manuscript for More Precious Than Gold in 2017, two years before COVID hit. Never in a million years did I ever think I would live through a pandemic in my own lifetime!

Everyone knows someone who has had COVID or has had it themself. I know several nurses that have had it twice.

Today, though, we have antibiotics and antivirals. We have oxygen and ventilators, breathing treatments, and monoclonal antibodies. We have access to clean water and health care. In 1918, all they had was aspirin powder and morphine. But, unlike COVID, this pandemic flu of 1918 primarily affected people in the 20 to 40 age group---people in the prime of their life. In New York City alone, over 100,000 children were left orphans.

Here's the blurb: A young woman refuses to become a pawn in her grandmother’s revenge scheme and forgoes a life of wealth and royalty to pursue a nursing career as America enters WWI and the Pandemic Flu of 1918 wreaks havoc in New York City.

My interest in archaeology and history began when my father brought home a full color book on Tutankhamun sometime in the 60's. I was hooked!

I was a voracious reader from an early age, often bringing home 10 or 12 books a week to read during summer vacation. I particularly love historical fiction that immerses you in a new culture. Time travel in a book! To this day, one of my all time favorite reads is Shogun, by James Clavell.

When I'm not writing, I'm traveling to see the places I write about, antiquing, and collecting pottery.

Visit my website and blog at

Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free copy of my Gilded Age novella, Have Cash, Will Marry!

Book Buy Links:

Amazon US:

Amazon UK:

Amazon Can:

Amazon Aus:

1 Comment

Paula Harmon
Paula Harmon
Jul 12, 2022

Fascinating. I'm just starting to study (to some extent) student nursing from the same period in the UK. My grandfather was called up to fight in the summer of 1918 but fell very ill with some form of flu which damaged his heart and he never fought. I've often suspected it was Spanish flu in its earliest days, but of course, can't prove it (nor does it matter since he survived, but it was blamed for his early death from heart failure in his fifties, since his parents and all his siblings lived well into their 90s).

bottom of page