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Tanter, Marcy: "Elizabeth Stearns Tyler: From Amherst to the World”

“Elizabeth Stearns Tyler: From Amherst to the World”

Marcy Tanter, Tarleton State University

As the daughter of an Amherst College president, Elizabeth Stearns Tyler understood community responsibility. In August of 1918, despite being at the fore of an academic career, the 30-year-old Tyler volunteered to go to France with the Red Cross to act as a secretary and interpreter for the medical staff who worked among tubercular patients.
For five months, Elizabeth Tyler served the ARC and the people of Northern France in a few different roles. In February, 1919, her family was shocked to get a cable informing them that Elizabeth had died of complications from bronchitis; she had written to them that she was ill but was on the mend. She was buried at Sedan with military honors. We would not be aware of Elizabeth Tyler and her service were it not for the letters she wrote to her family while she was there. Because she was not a nurse or attached to the military, she was able to write with a little more freedom than were other women who sent letters home. She notes, for example, that “The Red Cross work for French civilians is being curtailed materially—the tubercular work being particularly shaky. . . .” Tyler provides a view of the goings-on at the end of the war that we do not typically encounter, because of her unique position. She was beloved at home and following her death, her family published the letters with an elegy written by close family friend Martha Dickinson Bianchi.
Had she lived, Elizabeth Stearns Tyler would have likely had a successful academic career. Women were breaking down academic barriers and making significant contributions, as Tyler had done. Her letters are an important contribution to women’s writing about WW1; Tyler’s viewpoint is unusual and should be added to the canon of American women writers. A woman from a small town in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Tyler became a true “world citizen” as she applied the values instilled in her at home to selflessly aid the people of ravaged France.