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Column: Recalling a remarkable regional woman

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — We have talked now and again about how young is this land of ours, these far reaches of Minnesota and Iowa.

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I knew Bessie Whelan. Bessie lived at 1112 Grand Ave. for decades. Bessie knew Emma Randall Lawrence and Emma Randall Lawrence came to Nobles County in 1883. To hear Bessie Whelan talk of Emma Lawrence was to bring our very beginnings right up to the present. Hop, skip, jump.

Emma Lawrence. Nobles County in 1883. We have come to 2014, and Emma Lawrence continues still as one of the most remarkable women of our region.

“She (Emma) went to Rochester to show the Mayo brothers how to bandage,” Bessie once recalled. “She was the nurse and when people needed medical care, they went to her.”

How could Emma Lawrence of Nobles County know something the Mayo brothers wanted to learn? That’s the story.

Emma was born in London — 1844 — and she became an orphan. If this sounds like the beginning of a Charles Dickens novel — if this brings to mind “Oliver Twist” (1838) — it is that kind of story. In England of that age, orphans went to workhouses. (“Please sir, I want some more porridge…”)

The twist in Emma Randall’s story comes when she meets Florence Nightingale at St. Thomas Hospital. Florence Nightingale is remembered as the founder of modern nursing. Florence perfected skills, including bandaging, when she served the British army in the Crimean war. The Lady with the Lamp, she was called.

For four years the London orphan girl, now grown, was one of Florence Nightingale’s students and assistants. She learned techniques and skills for caring for the wounded that only a handful of people in that age had learned.

In 1873, now carrying the credentials of a nurse, Emma Randall was sent by Nightingale to Montreal to open a nursing school there. Emma emigrated to Canada and took work in a Montreal hospital. This was in Worthington’s first year. In 1876 Emma married Azariah Lawrence, a young Canadian who was descended from English nobility. His forebears had come to Canada in the time of British settlement. Azariah and Emma came to have five children — two boys, a girl, two boys — and on Aug. 30, 1883, the young Lawrence family arrived to take up farming on the Minnesota frontier in Section 20 of Summit Lake Township, not far from where the village of Reading emerged after the arrival of the Burlington railroad in 1899.

Well —

Bessie Whelan —

Bessie Whelan was a granddaughter of B.F. Young, who once lived in the imposing house on the Fifth Avenue corner that drivers see as they head down Humiston Avenue. While he still lived on his farm in nearby Elk Township, Ben had a hand slashed one summer day by a partner in a grain field. Granddaughter Bessie remembered, “The accident happened when they were threshing. When they put the bundles in the threshing machine, they had to cut the bands on each bundle. One man would be on one side and one on the other, cutting bundles as they came.” Ben was bleeding badly. He needed medical attention and there was neither a hospital nor a doctor at Reading. “Take him to Emma Lawrence — take him to the nurse — she can take care of him.”

And she did. Bessie remembered, “She used a shingle to make a splint, then bandaged the hand. Grandpa carried a big scar the rest of his life.”

Azariah and Emma Lawrence and their family were known widely in the local area. The son Allen took over the Summit Lake farm after his father retired. Azariah Lawrence died in 1927. His grave can be found in Rushmore’s Sun Set Cemetery. Emma, the medical pioneer, the orphan who taught bandaging to the Mayo brothers, died two years later, in June 1929. She is buried in the cemetery at Crosby in Divide County, North Dakota. It is only speculation that after her husband’s death she moved to be with family members.

Emma Randall Lawrence had a notably kindly face. Beaming eyes and, it appears, always just a trace of a smile. It was the face of a nurse.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.