Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Remembering a Veteran: Nurse & Volunteer in Two World Wars, Ethel Carow Roosevelt Derby

by Keith Muchowski

Ethel and Her Mother Edith at the Turn of the Century

Ethel Derby died 40 years ago tomorrow. If one is unfamiliar with the name, one is not alone; Mrs. Derby shunned the limelight just as tenaciously as her older half-sister Alice Roosevelt Longworth courted it. Ethel Carow Roosevelt Derby had four brothers and was the only girl born to Theodore Roosevelt and his second wife Edith. Ethel was born at Sagamore Hill, her parents’ Oyster Bay Long Island home, on 13 August 1891. Her father at the time was a Civil Service commissioner in the Benjamin Harrison administration. She turned ten one month prior to her father’s becoming president in the wake of the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. Throughout his presidency there was great public interest in the Roosevelt clan and Ethel came of age as a quartet of prominent young Roosevelt women that included half-sister Alice and cousins Corinne Douglas Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt. In Washington, Ethel attended the National Cathedral School for Girls, from which she graduated in 1906. She had her coming out in a large but understated White House function, which included a midnight formal dinner in late December 1908, a few months before the end of her father’s term.

Ethel had grown up hearty and something of a tomboy with striking, handsome features. She lived the strenuous life very much like her father and enjoyed climbing trees, playing with the family pets, and horseback riding at Sagamore Hill with her four brothers. Ethel spent the years immediately after her father’s presidency living at Sagamore Hill and visited New York City frequently. Young Ethel met Dr. Richard Derby in late 1912. The two announced their engagement on Valentine's Day 1913 and married at Oyster Bay’s Christ Episcopal Church on 4 April 1913 in a simple but well-attended ceremony of 500 guests, at least 200 of these brought in by train from Manhattan that morning. The couple honeymooned in Europe and 11 months after the wedding a son, Richard Derby, Jr., was born. Baby Richard was Theodore Roosevelt's first grandson.

Wedding Announcement

When war broke out in Europe that summer all of the Roosevelts watched with great concern. Ethel was the first from the clan to serve overseas in the Great War. Dr. and Mrs. Derby left for France in September 1914 and worked through the end of the year at the American Ambulance Hospital, he as a surgeon and she as a nurse. The days were long, the work physically demanding and emotionally taxing, and the living conditions spartan. They were so earnest in their desire to help the wounded that they left their infant son in the care of his grandparents at Sagamore Hill. Most of their patients were injured British troops, and Ethel sometimes took the cases she saw to heart. She once solicited $200 (over $4200 in today's dollars) to secure a prosthetic leg for a young Tommy who had lost a limb fighting the Germans.

Ethel before the Great War
When the two returned in December they kept up in their war efforts. In April 1915 Mrs. Derby became chair of the Committee of American Hostels for Refugees in Paris, an organization whose mission was to assist French and Belgians displaced by the fighting. Dr. Derby was active in the civilian Plattsburg Preparedness Movement with his Roosevelt brothers-in-law. When the United State entered the war in April 1917 Derby joined what became the American Expeditionary Forces. He trained with the Medical Corps at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. Shortly after giving birth to the couple’s second child, Ethel joined Major Derby down south. The two rented a house in Chattanooga about ten miles from the base across the state line in Georgia. Ethel was popular and active in the community, working hard, making herself useful, and goodnaturedly putting to use such skills as milking cows, much to the amusement of the locals. The citizenry had good reason to take kindly to Ethel Derby; her grandmother Martha Bulloch Roosevelt had been a Southern belle from Georgia before marrying and moving to New York City in the 1850s. Major Richard Derby soon left for France. This time, however, Ethel did not accompany him. The stress must have been excruciating. Ethel’s husband and four brothers were all fighting in the Great War. Older brother Ted was gassed at Cantigny and later seriously wounded in the knee; baby brother Quentin was an aviator, shot down and killed on Bastille Day 1918. Six months later, heartbroken with the loss of his youngest child, Theodore Roosevelt died in early January 1919. Derby was a surgeon in the Second Infantry Division for over a year, gaining promotion to lieutenant colonel, and earning the Croix de Guerre, French Legion of Honor, and Distinguished Service Medal. He returned to Long Island in 1919 a few weeks after his father-in-law’s death.

Ethel in Her WWII Red Cross Uniform

In the 1920s Ethel and Richard Derby settled into life in Long Island with their growing family. Things could still be difficult. Richard Jr., just eight years old, died of septicemia in October 1922. His father suffered from depression thereafter and never fully recovered. Dr. Derby worked at a local hospital and Ethel grew increasingly active in community service. In 1923 she worked on behalf of Russian refugees exiled in Paris during the Russian Civil War. For well over half a century she volunteered with the American Red Cross, determined to streamline the organization and end the frustrating waste and red tape she had seen in Paris in 1914. She was also a board member of the American Museum of Natural History, which her grandfather had help found and her father had done so much to foster and promote. After her mother’s death in 1948 she helped turn her parents’ Sagamore Hill home into a national historic site. Richard Derby died in 1963. His widow lived another fourteen years. Ethel Roosevelt Derby lived a long and full life of activity and public service in the spirit of her father, Theodore Roosevelt. Born during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, Mrs. Derby lived to 86 and died on December 10, 1977 during the Jimmy Carter Administration. After her death a family friend told the New York Times for the obituary that Ethel Derby “was T.R.—but completely feminine.”


Keith Muchowski, a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn NY, writes occasionally for Roads to the Great War. He blogs at thestrawfoot.com.

4 comments:

  1. Dr. Derby was not just "a surgeon" in the division but the Division Surgeon. He wrote a wonderful memoir in 1919 of the medical support for the division: "Wade In, Sanitary," dedicated to his wife.

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  2. Found it on Amazon for $12 paperback and $0 Kindle. Thank you so much for the information. My father was a young staff surgeon with Base Hospital #9, the New York Hospital unit, in Chateauroux from 1917 to 1919.

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  3. Mike:

    I need to research a subject that was written about in "Roads." How can I search for subjects? (Erich von Renten)


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  4. I met Ethel Derby in the mid-1970's. At the time, I was a young insurance adjuster, and she had had some water damage at her home in Oyster Bay. I had no idea who she was.
    She was talking about her concerns about neighborhood kids coming on the property, and what would happen if one of them got hurt, while I took notes on the damage. We were in the center hall, when she pointed to a large portrait and said, "And this is a picture of my father while he was in Washington, DC."
    I was only half paying attention and hardly glanced at the portrait, and responded, "Oh, what did he do there?"

    "He was President of the United States."

    One of life's embarrassing moments!

    Jim Cameron

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