Burgh nurse remembered in Slovakia

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THE grave of a nurse from Helensburgh who died over 90 years ago is still lovingly tended by members of the Red Cross in Slovakia.

Margaret McCallum was working in a British Red Cross Mission in the town of Turzovka when she caught typhus, and she died soon after on September 30 1919.

Although little is known about her burgh background, there are some records of her time as a Red Cross nurse.

Her First World War nursing began when she was sent to Petrograd in Russia, now St Petersburg, in 1916. But the following March the city was the centre of what became known as the February revolution.

It was one of a series of revolutions which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. It was no place for a Scottish nurse, and she returned to the UK.

She is next recorded as working in an Auxiliary Military Hospital at Headcom, near Maidstone in Kent. But after the armistice with Germany was signed on November 11 1918, Margaret went east again.

Post-war conditions in Slovakia were appalling, and she joined the Red Cross Relief Mission in Turzovka led by humanitarian Lady Muriel Paget, a daughter of an Earl.

In May 1919 her Mission helped to build stations to provide first aid for the soldiers of the Czechoslovak Army during the conflict with the Hungarian Red Army.

It built an epidemic hospital in Turzovka and wiped out an extensive epidemic of typhus in Kysuce. It set up 100 feeding and distribution stations for children in which in nearly two years 24,000 children had their meals every day.

It built 16 centres of social and medical care for children and mothers where over 22,000 children were treated, and this gave rise to the Modra Children's Hospital which exists today in a much expanded form.

Margaret was involved in setting up the medical stations in an attempt to deal with the disease spreading amongst the undernourished peasant population.

The shortages of the war years had caused starvation, and diseases like typhus were prevalent. She was recorded as being good at giving baths to typhus victims brought to her station.

Transported in from remote villages by Slovak soldiers, many of the peasants, already half dead from their suffering, were disinfected with a series of baths.

Those who had never seen a bath before yelled and screamed, but the process had to be carried out in order to begin to control the disease.

Another nurse reported: "Miss MacCallum, small though she was, was a wonder at this job and a most devoted worker."

Because of the fear that nursing staff disinfecting patients might catch typhus passed on by insect bites, the nurses and their soldier helpers all wore the local military uniform of coats, trousers, caps and high boots.

Margaret, however, complained that this outfit made her hot. It seems she simply did not wear this elaborate uniform, claiming she was "a tough old Scottie".

But when she caught typhus herself, her death was attributed to infection from a louse bite.

Her death was not in vain, as Lady Paget’s Mission was the beginning of the provision of proper medical services to that region of Slovakia, which is why her sacrifice is still remembered and honoured in Turzovka.

In 2002 Helensburgh Library publicised an appeal from the Slovak Red Cross for information about her background, as all that is known is that her next of kin was Captain W.N.Young who lived in the burgh.

A search of Helensburgh birth records found two girls called Margaret McCallum who might have grown up to be this nurse.

The first and likelier was born on January 25 1886 at 13 William Street, the daughter of merchant’s clerk Arnold McCallum and his wife Margaret Cuthill.

The second — perhaps too young as she would have been only 18 in 1916 and would surely not consider herself old in 1919 — was born on August 22 1898 at Auchengeich, Glen Fruin, the daughter of shepherd Donald McCallum and his wife Margaret Cameron.

In either case, why would the next of kin be a Captain?

More information would be very much welcomed. Please email the editor of this website, using This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or the Contact Us facility on the home page, if you have any information on either of these ladies, or Captain Young.