By Rita Shelley

For her coming out party in 1890, Miss Anna Millard wore a Paris gown of pale pink mousseline de soie, trimmed with a garland of tiny pink hyacinth buds. The daughter of former mayor and First National Bank President Ezra Millard also wore hyacinths in her hair.[1] At subsequent parties throughout the season, she wore white lace with apple blossoms adorning the bodice, white silk and tulle with sweet peas on the bodice, a black gown with red poppies on the shoulders, a red bonnet trimmed with American beauty roses, and white crepe with white flowers in her hair.

But in 1894, Omaha begrudgingly relinquished its favorite daughter to Johns Hopkins nursing school in Baltimore. “She will be missed,” it was reported, especially as an “indefatigable worker among the wounded and heavy laden of Omaha.” [2] Becoming a nurse changed Anna’s life; it also changed Omaha when she returned from the east coast with a vision for a visiting nurses’ association to train public health nurses, to provide care to patients who could not pay, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and to teach hygiene practices in times when cases of scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, measles, and whooping cough could quickly alight into epidemics.

Thus, in the winter of 1896, several women gathered at 4 p.m. on a Thursday at the Omaha Woman’s Club in the Gold Coast neighborhood to hear what their friend Anna Millard had to say. Attendees Winifred Gallagher, Annie Baum, Agnes McShane, Minnie Lord, and Laura Whitney had grown up with Anna. They had hosted and attended birthday and coming-out parties together and worn gowns magnificent enough to make the paper. By this time, all attendees except “Miss Millard” had married scions of Omaha’s leading industries – factories, banking, steel and iron, construction, medicine, real estate, and agriculture.

As soon as the women of the club announced their decision, a Daily Bee reporter opined that Anna’s work, and the support of her wealthy friends, “opened the way for a noble and much-needed work of charity and provides a wide field of usefulness for young women who desire active employment in the relief of the sick and distressed.[3]

But it was not the first time since nursing school that Anna had advocated for public health, especially that of women and girls. Upon first returning to Omaha, she had helped organize the city’s Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA, now the Women’s Center for Advancement). At the YWCA’s first formal meeting, she was elected both third vice president and recording secretary. Anna also earned the county board of health’s gratitude for “volunteering her services, kindness and watchfulness nursing to an impoverished woman.”[4]

Perhaps it was during her professional training that Anna learned about women like Lillian Wald in New York and Jane Addams in Chicago, women who drew on their families’ wealth and connections for the greater good in public health and social welfare. Whether or not she had direct knowledge isn’t known, but the agency she started as a solo nurse in 1896 with the commitment of $1 per year dues from 30 Omaha women was modeled after Wald’s and Addams’ work. Wald is credited with coining the term “public health nurse” and starting the nation’s first visiting nurses’ association.

For many years, membership dues were the sole ongoing support for Anna’s VNA. But local philanthropists George and Sarah Joslyn looked out for their own when, in 1897, they made their five acres at 39th and Davenport available for a Lawn Fete fundraiser for the VNA. Admission was 25 cents for adults, a dime for children. Tents, awnings, and drapery were donated by enthusiastic merchants. Bunting was sufficient for an event encompassing five acres, as were Electric Light Company incandescents around the lake for swimming and at entrances. Dancing was accompanied by the 22nd Infantry Fort Crook band.

In June of 1898, Anna married Herbert Rogers, a Princeton-educated attorney who was recent heir to and president of Milton Rogers and Sons Hardware Company of Omaha. The wedding was at the Millard family home, followed by a reception for 500. Entrepreneurial Anna was now “Mrs. Herbert Rogers.” Within four years she and Herbert were parents to Milton, Millard, and Hellen, in a household that also included two sisters-in-law, two nieces, and a servant.

As the VNA’s honorary president, Anna continued fundraising and guiding the ongoing development of the small but mighty agency. In 1918, she helped recruit reserve nurses to care for patients on the home front while professional nurses were deployed in Europe. (VNA nurses also risked their own health to care for soldiers who returned home with the Spanish flu.)  

During Anna’s lifetime and in the decades until she died at age 67, she also worked with women who have almost become invisible with time. It is difficult to find and tell some of their stories when being known as “Mrs. Husband’sName” carried more power and was a source of pride. In one case, it would take a professional researcher to locate a woman known, even in her obituary, as “Mrs. Felix McShane.”

Anna would want these women’s stories told:

Louise McPherson, one of Anna’s early advocates and a long-time VNA member, was the daughter of a livestock commissioner, rancher, and stockman. She directed a play to raise money for the VNA. She and Anna grew up and attended the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in New York together. In 1911, Louise moved to her grandfather’s home in Maryland, where she was a dairy farmer who was active in the Democratic Party.[1]

Dr. Mattie Arthur, an informal medical director of the VNA in its early days, deserves a book of her own. Born in Ohio in 1859, she taught in Burt County rural schools for five years beginning when she was still a teenager herself, studying for medical school at night. According to her obituary, she graduated from Iowa’s medical school in 1886, the only woman in her class, and did post-grad work in New York, London, and Edinburgh. She returned to Burt County to practice medicine before setting up her practice in Omaha’s Paxton block. She taught anatomy at Creighton Medical School and obstetrics at Omaha Medical School.[2] At age 75, she was still recovering from a rattlesnake bite at her ranch in western Nebraska when she tripped on a rug and broke her hip.[3] She regained her health and still saw patients the day she died in 1940 at age 81.[4]

Bessie B. Randell was a VNA nurse for two years before she was appointed its director in 1911. She was also an advocate for suffrage. She resigned from the VNA in 1917, claiming that the work was straining her health. She married Dr. F.E. Coulter the following year.[1]

Florence McCabe succeeded Bessie Randell as VNA director in 1918. Her arrival was lauded owing to her education at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago and the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, her executive experience at the Red Cross, and her work at Chicago’s tuberculosis sanitarium.[2] In 1918, she became ill during the flu epidemic, but recovered. [3]

VNA nurse Greta Paulsen was Omaha’s first orthopedics specialist who went on to be superintendent of the Hattie B. Munroe Home for Crippled Children.[1]

Anna Millard Rogers died at her home in Omaha in 1931 at age 67. During her lifetime she and the battalion of nurses she trained and worked alongside were widely recognized for saving lives and bringing comfort to the afflicted. Anna envisioned a future in which medical professionals bridged the gap between care that could be provided and the people who needed it. Today, 125 years later, the VNA responds to epidemic and pandemic crises while also sustaining infusion services, home health care, parenting support, flu and immunization clinics, clinics at homeless shelters, hospice, and palliative care. The agency’s annual budget surpasses $5 million.[2] The 19th and 20th century women who applied their medical expertise, as well as those who martialed Omaha’s philanthropic resources, would be proud.

According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald, these 32 women “[stand] ready in all kinds of weather to lend aid to the sick poor, or to anyone wishing hourly paid service.” Source: OWH, 24 May 1925, p. 7.

Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, food service, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!

[1] “Little Cripples Thank Rotary For Its Help.” Omaha World-Herald. May 3, 1928, p. 3.

[2] Visiting Nurse Association. Our Services, 2022. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.

[3] “Bessie B. Randell.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 May 1918, p 66.

[4] “Miss Florence McCabe Assumes Duties as Visiting Nurse Chief.” Omaha Evening Bee. 21 Jan 1918, p. 1.

[5] “All but Three Visiting Nurses are Ill with ‘Flu.’” Omaha Evening Bee. 24 Oct 1918, p. 2.

[6] “Louise McPherson. ”The Public Mirror. 26 July 1923, p. 1.

[7] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[8] “Bitten by Rattler and Hip Broken; Cheerful.” Omaha Evening Bee News. 6 December 1934, p. 1.

[9] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[10] “A Week in Omaha Society.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 January 1890, p. 6.

[11] “Farewell to Miss Anna Millard.” Omaha Daily Bee. 11 March 1894, p. 4.

[12] Omaha Daily Bee. 21 November 1896, p.4.

[13] “Board of Health.” Omaha Daily Bee. 6 April 1893, p. 2.

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