Project Title: The Creation of Martyr – The Clara Maas Story
Student: Mackenzie Sommers ’16
Mentor: Dr. Barbara Terzian
My senior capstone was on Clara Maas, a contracted army nurse during the Spanish American War. After the war, she volunteered as a human test subject in experimental Yellow Fever inoculations. She was inoculated once and only mildly contracted the disease so she agreed to be inoculated again to see if she was now immune to Yellow Fever. This time she contracted the disease and died. Because of Clara Maas’s death, the outlash of negative public opinion on human experimentation swayed scientists to stop using humans as test subjects for the most part.
Yet, the story doesn’t end there. During my 2014 internship at the National Archives and Records Administration (via Wesleyan in Washington), I got access to previously classified documents marked “Confidential until 2004.” Using these, I was able to add a new chapter to the traditional story. Clara Maas had been dismissed from her contracted nursing because she had hidden an abortion from her commanding officers and contested the immorality charges against her when she was found out. This new information became the inspiration for my senior historical research paper. I spent the semester digging deeper into Clara Maas’s impoverished childhood, her commitment and passion for nursing and the reasons she felt she needed to risk her life with the Yellow Fever testing. My research led to questions about the ways in which we hold our female historical figures to different standards than those of men, and shows the importance of knowing the full story of someone’s life, even the parts that don’t fit the easy narrative of history.
The research could not be completed without the help of the National Archives and DeAnne Blanton, Army Reference Team Archivist at NARA.