Marion McCune Rice grew up in Brattleboro and attended the town's public schools. After graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1900, she attended and graduated from Smith College. She then went on to Philadelphia, Pa. to attend Nursing School.
In the early 1900s there weren't too many professions open to women. Popular options for single women were school teacher, social worker or nurse.
Marion enjoyed traveling and adventure. While still in her teens she had gone on a three-month trip to California with her mother. Marion found she really enjoyed traveling and the nursing profession offered her the independence she appreciated.
After graduating from nursing school she remained in the Philadelphia area and worked in a couple of hospitals, specializing as a surgery nurse.
By 1914 Marion had already traveled to Europe on three occasions. She had created an independent life for herself and also kept in touch with friends from her college and high school days.
In May of 1914 Marion and five female friends headed to Europe for a three-month tour. They traveled by ship to the Mediterranean Sea and visited Greece and Montenegro. In June, while visiting Montenegro, Marion and her friends heard that Austrian prince Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated.
While there was a great deal of excitement as a result of the death of the crown prince, the party of six American women felt safe continuing their travels in Europe. In late July they arrived in Vienna, Austria and heard the news that Austria and Serbia were now at war because of the assassination.
Marion and her friends witnessed the organization of the Austrian Army as they prepared to invade Serbia. In a newspaper article published when Marion made it back to the States, she shared that one of the most interesting days in Austria was when her group traveled down the Danube River on a steamship loaded with Austrian soldiers heading to the front.
The group's next stop on their European tour was Germany. In early August they were in Dresden, Germany when war was declared between Germany and Russia. Germany had joined the Austrian side of the battle and Russia had joined to support the Serbs.
The next day news was announced that England and France had also entered the war on the side of the Serbs. All of a sudden, it seemed that all of Europe was going to war against one another because of the assassination of one man.
The group of six American women now looked to leave Europe as soon as possible. Unfortunately, all train service throughout Germany was cancelled in order to use the trains to transport soldiers. Germany was now at war with England and France and it was getting serious.
English speaking foreigners were suspected of being spies. Marion knew an American woman who was arrested and put into prison because she was accused of being a disguised English spy. Marion saw Germans in the streets going through the town and tearing down advertisement signs written in English. Marion's tour group was advised to not speak English in public because mobs of people might turn on them. It was a very hostile environment for English-speaking foreigners.
Marion's group was trying to get out of Germany but was having trouble getting money and transportation. The banks would not issue large sums of money to foreigners. The group of six women began wearing little American flag pins on their clothing so people would not mistake them for the English.
Eventually the women were able to take a train from Dresden to Berlin, Germany. The trip usually took two hours, but because of troop transportation and government interference, the train ride took nine hours.
Luckily, United States Naval Officers had been sent to Berlin by the U.S. government to help Americans get out of the war zone. They were able to load onto special trains set aside to transport U.S. citizens out of Germany and on to the Netherlands. From the Netherlands they took a ship to England and from England they were able to load onto a cargo steamship heading for New York City.
The six women had been trapped in warring European countries for over two months. This turned out to be more than an exciting three-month tour of Europe.
In September of 1914, when Marion made it back to the U.S. she quickly visited her family in Brattleboro. Understandably, they had been worried about her. After assuring her family that she was OK, she explained that she was going to go back to Europe. When she was in England, waiting for the steamship to take her back to the United States, she had seen a large number of wounded soldiers who had been sent home from the battlefield. She decided that she needed to help those who were fighting against German and Austrian aggression.
Marion McCune Rice joined the Red Cross and became a nurse who would be stationed in Europe to care for soldiers. Marion had a Brattleboro ancestor, William McCune, who served as a captain for the Green Mountain Regiment in the Revolutionary War. In February of 1915, Marion sailed to France as one of 10 Red Cross nurses going to serve in what would become known as World War I.
It was more than two years later that the United States joined the war on the side of the English and the French. Over 450 people from the Brattleboro area eventually served in World War I. Marion was the first.
During the war, Marion was stationed in three different French hospitals. World War I ended in November of 1918, but Marion did not come home until February of 1919. The French hospital she worked in had numerous casualties that required months of care beyond the end of the fighting.
There were 32 nations involved in World War I and over 8 million people died during the conflict. In November of 1918 a local paper reported that 15 people from Brattleboro had died in the war.
Marion returned to Brattleboro and visited friends and family for a few months and then took on her next challenge, becoming a professor and director of the School for Public Health Nursing at Simmonds College in Boston. Marion McCune Rice was a real hero.
Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957; https://brattleborohistoricalsociety.org.