Who Is This Alumna?

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Helen Skipwith WilmerWhat early alumna donated $30,000 to build an addition to the nurses residence in memory of her father? 

By Betty Borenstein Scher ’50

Helen Skipwith Wilmer, Class of 1905, whose father had been on the Hospital Board of Directors, donated the money to build a needed addition to the nurses residence the year after her graduation. Upon hearing this, Miss Nutting quipped, “Well, now I know she was listening in class.”

Miss Wilmer, who became Mrs. Athey a few years later with her marriage to Dr. Caleb Athey, was to become a stalwart participant in the Alumnae Association on so many levels and in so many directions.

Upon graduation, she worked at the Henry Street Settlement in New York; the next year, she returned to Baltimore and worked at the IVNS, then in its infancy. In 1908, she took over the Hopkins Social Service Department and led it to a prominent position in the hospital and the community.

During World War II, she became a “general handy man” in the General Operating Room. On her five- to six-hour schedule, she did everything except the actual administration of anesthesia, although it was said that at times she did even that! She also volunteered many hours of nursing service in Women’s Clinic and acted two nights a week as nurse at the Baltimore Aircraft spotter service.

She also was always active in the Nurses Alumnae Association, from serving on committees, chairing committees, starting new projects, even just answering the phone and addressing letters for Homecoming. In other words, she did whatever needed to be done.

Her name was synonymous with the Gate House Shop, that little store at the Broadway entrance to the hospital. Mrs. Athey started that shop for the Association to earn money for the Endowment Fund, and from 1921 through 1951, she led her “willing slaves” there with great success. She resigned to “give way to youth.” Yet, when it was proposed that the money earned from sales at the Gate House Shop be named after her, she politely refused, saying it would be unfair to the many alumnae who had done so much to make the shop a success.

Any description of Helen Athey is incomplete without mention of her charming wit and her romance with the English language. Many were the alumnae who came to the Annual Meeting simply to hear her many committee reports and get more than a chuckle or two from them. In one report on the annual Christmas sales and activities, she said, “At the Bingo table, Miss Lawler developed amazing powers as a steady and undiscouraged gambler.” When a car raffle was won by a young man who worked in the hospital bakery, she commented, “We trust it will not encourage him to prefer speeding to kneading.”

She always claimed she had a “far from illustrious” nursing career. To those of us who got to know her or work with her, she flunked on that self-assessment.

For more information, visit www.medicalarchives.jhmi.edu.

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