Anne Cassidy, district nurse

Annie and Anne Cassidy in 1916.

The coronavirus crisis has inspired me to think of past health heroes. My paternal grandmother, Anne P. (Cassidy) Dwyer (1892–1964) of Fall River, Massachusetts, immediately comes to mind. As a first-generation American, daughter of an Irish widow, Anne overcame adversity through drive and determination. She worked ten years in the cotton mills to put her brother through school before she enrolled at St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in Providence. When she graduated in the spring of 1917, the United States had entered World War I. Some of her classmates volunteered for service in France, but Anne’s mother vigorously dissuaded her from going. One of those nurses, Henrietta Drummond of Pawtucket, perished in a mustard gas attack.[1]

Carrying the bag, 1916.

For the next few years, Anne worked in Providence as a district nurse, carrying her trademark bag throughout the city to deliver babies and to care for families during epidemics. I have often wondered how many lives she saved and how many children did she brought safely into the world.

One story vividly attests to Anne’s life-saving intervention. Eleanor Clynes Edgett (1918–1997), Anne’s only niece, recounted this incident. Two little girls, Eleanor and Elizabeth Farland – then in second grade – shared an apple during recess. By noon, they were sent home with a fever and difficulty in breathing. Eleanor’s mother made a frantic call to Providence. My grandmother rushed home on the train to Fall River, and immediately recognized Eleanor’s symptoms of diphtheria. Anne intubated the child, thereby saving her life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, without the same skilled medical attention, died that evening.

Eleanor and Mary Ellen Clynes.

That brush with death prompted Anne to leave Providence and to join the Fall River District Nursing Association, formed a decade earlier. Among the treasures from my grandmother’s house, a much-thumbed booklet, the association’s annual report for 1930, gives some telling details of why their work was critical: At the height of the textile mill boom in 1912 when Fall River’s population swelled to 120,000, the city experienced a death rate of 155 per thousand births, “one of the highest mortality rates in the country.” The public outcry resulted in more nurses joining the association. In addition to their home visits, they also founded the King Philip Settlement House Clinic. By 1930, their efforts showed significant results – the death rate fell to 66 per thousand births.

Anne’s picture in uniform appeared for the last time in this report because she had married the year before, at the age of 37.

Anne Cassidy Dwyer

Her wedding to my grandfather, Michael F. Dwyer, made the Fall River Herald News with the headline, “District Nurse Becomes Bride.” Few of the district nurses of that era married, and nearly all of them enjoyed long and productive careers. My grandmother kept her friendships with the district nurses for the rest of her life. I remember their bridge parties – always with tempting plates of petits fours!

If my grandmother were living today, she would fully understand the power of a pandemic and how quarantine was sometimes the only way to stem contagion. Let us remember, now and then, the skill of health professionals who make all the difference.


[1] For more on these nurses, see Michael F. Dwyer, “Student Nurses of St. Joseph’s Hospital, 1915,” Rhode Island Roots 36 [2010]: 100–2.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

13 thoughts on “Anne Cassidy, district nurse

  1. Nice story of a remarkable woman, whose nursing career ended when she married. Regrettably, in earlier generations, many women were forced to leave work if they married. One wonders how many advances, discoveries, lives changed or saved, were lost when their influence was removed from public work fields. My mother had two aunts, one a teacher and the other a nurse, who both remained unmarried and enjoyed long productive careers, but I have wondered at what personal cost to them.

    1. M y grandmother confided to friends she was fortunate to have two children at 39 and 41, so I think it was a choice for her leaving the profession.

  2. Hi Michael,
    It would be interesting to learn how Providence and vicinity fared during the 3 waves. Rhode islander John Barry writes in The Great Influenza that St. louis fared well, Philly was the worst and Pittsburgh had a “W” pattern of cases.
    MY great aunt Laura Marston, a 57 year old spinste,r died during the second wave October 1918 in Providence.

    Dan H

    1. Hi Dan,
      Providence and other places in the state were hit hard. I wrote an article on two Rhode Island flu orphans in Rhode Island Roots, June 2015.

    1. Thank you. Family members who remember her appreciated the story. People live as long as we remember them.

  3. I compared the dates of your grandmother’s marriage to my mother’s marriage to see how things changed. Your grandmother married in about 1929, while my mother who was also a nurse married in1938. My mother however continued her nursing career after she married and retired at age 62. Wow, how things changed in about 10 years.

    1. By the 1930s, it varied within families. My other grandmother, also a nurse, returned to the profession when her youngest children went to school, and she worked 3 to 11 for years.

  4. Myh Goodness, Michael. Penney will be thrilled to know she’s part of “our own ‘Call the Midwife’!” Great article. Thanks.

    1. One snippet of conversation I remember from their bridge parties is hearing how many miles they walked every day carrying their bags. No bicycles for them in Fall River.

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