Elizabeth Hansbrough: Shelbyville Native in the Philippines

One of the fascinating parts of working with Ohio Valley History collections at the Filson is how extensively people from that part of the country traveled, and how they brought their experiences back to the area. One such individual was Elizabeth Kathleen Hansbrough (1892-1971), who travelled extensively in Asia as part of her career with the United States Army, and sent numerous letters and several photographs back to her family.

Elizabeth Kathleen Hansbrough was a career United States Army nurse born in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Hansbrough joined the U. S. Army Nurse Corps in 1917. She first served in the Phillipines, and was initially stationed at the military hospital in Fort Mills, Corregidor, and soon transferred to Sternberg General Hospital in Manila. Hansbrough wrote extensively to her family while travelling through Asia and Europe, eager to share her experiences. She also sent pictures to them, showing the things she saw on her travels.

The reclining Buddha near Kemmendine Monastery Rangoon

The reclining Buddha near Kemmendine Monastery Rangoon

Shrines at base of Shwedagon Pagoda Rangoon

Shrines at base of Shwedagon Pagoda Rangoon

Hansbrough took a variety of photos, showing people, architecture, landscapes, and the daily lives of people in the region.

 

Extracting venom from the hooded cobra at Pasteur Institute Bangkok Siam, 26 March 1935

Extracting venom from the hooded cobra at Pasteur Institute Bangkok Siam, 26 March 1935

Mailman delivering mail to houseboats along canal, Bangkok, Siam, 27 March 1935

Mailman delivering mail to houseboats along canal, Bangkok, Siam, 27 March 1935

Hansbrough's letters describe Corregidor, Manila, and surrounding areas; the medical personnel; airmen and other acquaintances; her social life; hospital duties; racial attitudes, particularly toward the Filipinos; and travels. Her letters offer fascinating insights into a much different world, as in this 3 March 1926 letter where Hansbrough describes burial customs of the Igorrote people of the Philippines:

Tuesday morning we witnessed the military funeral of an Igorrote soldier who had died. They were to take his body to his home way up in the Bontoc Mountains – five days journey. A combat wagon carried the body 30 kilometers then bearers would wrap the body in canvas + leash it to a pole + carry for 24 hours, then fresh bearers would take the job. There were all sorts of tales out about how they conduct their burial ‘celebrations.’ Some say that at nightfall of the first day the bearers would disembowel the corpse, then start in the ‘smoking’ process – but some say he would not be ‘smoked’ till they reached his home. Anyway the military authorities got this message from the lead man’s father via constabulary officers at Bontoc: ‘Hasten the corpse; it will melt!’ They evidently wanted said corpse to be intact so they could smoke it properly + thereby have sufficient reason for the great celebration.

Overall, Hansbrough's letters show the life and work of a career Army nurse-anesthetist, conditions and places of interest in areas where she was stationed in the U.S. and the Philippines, her travels in Asia and Europe, and events of the day. She seems to have made a conscious effort to share her expanding horizons with her family, and left Filson members a fascinating record of Asia and parts of Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The collection also includes letters, 1907-1911, from childhood friends; and between family members, especially after Hansbrough became ill in April 1945 while on active duty and returned to Shelbyville after surgery, where she was cared for by a sister.

Hansbrough's letters offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of a Shelbyville woman who saw extraordinary sights, traveled extensively, and generously left her images and words for others to enjoy.

Eric Willey

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