A life of service in nursing
The Royal Naval Hospital in Ireland Island South, Bermuda, was built in 1818 for the sick and wounded seamen and marines of Her Majesty’s Ships. It was also used for the artisans employed on Ireland Island. It was designed with four wards, each holding 20 beds.
Slave women, whose services were rented out by their owners, made up part of the caregiving team. In 1972, the magnificent building was demolished, and along with it the history of local nurses who were trained there.
Cordelia Simmons, born in 1860 to Jacob and Frances Simmons, is the exception. She received her early education in the parish, and in her late teens went to train as a nurse at the Royal Naval Hospital.
By the time Cordelia arrived for training in the late 1800s, the hospital had been enlarged several times. Her training, according to her late grandson, Vivian Simmons, was under the supervision of Robert Waller Biddulph, of the Royal Navy, and Arnold Richard Packwood, from Somerset.
Dr Biddulph was a Royal Naval Surgeon stationed at Dockyard. As a matter of interest, he was mentioned in The Royal Gazette as a witness in the sensational 1879 murder trial of Edward Skeeters, from Somerset.
Dr Packwood was one of the first Black Bermudian medical doctors to qualify in North America after the abolition of slavery. His medical practice and surgery was located in his home, near Scaur Hill in Somerset. Today, the Packwood Home Seniors’ Residence is located in that same building.
Together, Dr Packwood and Cordelia Simmons became a formidable team. Cordelia was available for general nursing care, but midwifery was her specialty. She travelled on foot and by bicycle. Her dedication and commitment were such that inclement weather and the darkest of nights did not prevent her from attending her patients.
Despite her busy career, Cordelia married Joseph Fubler and became the mother of six children. One of their daughters, Helena, graduated from the Frederick Douglass Memorial School of Nursing in Philadelphia.
In September 1911, Helena Fubler placed an advertisement in The Royal Gazette to advertise her midwifery business in Mangrove Bay, Somerset.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 did not escape Bermuda. Records at the Bermuda National Library show that 139 people died; however, the population of Bermuda at that time was about 20,000. The first civilian case was reported in Somerset.
Cordelia Fubler worked tirelessly attending to the patients of John W. Cann Sr and Dr Packwood in the care of the infected residents of Somerset and Dockyard. The sick were advised to stay at home and not to visit the doctors’ offices. The slogan, quite timely for today was: “Cover your cough and sneeze, if you don’t you’ll spread the disease.”
Cordelia Fubler, despite caring for the infected, survived the pandemic.
In 1925, the Bermuda Welfare Society was formed. In order to be employed on the district, nurses were required to hold the qualification of Queen’s District Nursing Certificate. No Bermudian nurses held that qualification, so nurses from England were brought to the island.
By 1927, the Bermuda Government had passed the Midwives Act. It stipulated that in order to work, all practising midwives had to pass an examination. The local midwives had acquired their skills from generations of older midwives who had not been formally trained.
Sitting an examination was an unfamiliar skill and in the end, most were unsuccessful. Cordelia Fubler, at the age 67, was the oldest applicant to pass the oral and written examination — but the failure of her colleagues had a devastating effect on the local midwifery business.
The Bermuda Recorder, on March 1, 1957, announced on its front page that Bermuda had lost one of her most outstanding daughters — Cordelia Fubler had passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 97.
She was described as a fine Christian lady who spent the best part of her life in service to her community as a nurse. The report went on to add that she could always be relied upon to respond to any call that meant the uplifting of suffering humanity.
Cordelia Fubler was the great-grandmother of R. Delmont Simmons, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist.
In this month of May, dedicated to remembering nurses, let us remember Cordelia Simmons-Fubler and all those nurses who struggle daily to uplift the human spirit.
• Cecille Snaith-Simmons, SRN, SCM, is the 2020 Adult winner of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest. She has used references from History of the Royal Naval Hospital, Bermuda by Christopher Harvey, Surgeon R.N. (TNS:ADM 104/156) and gives sincere thanks to Edward Harris, PhD, and Linda Abend