The Aegis
Harford County

Remembering Camp Purnell on the Severn for wounded WWI soldiers to convalesce

One-hundred years ago this weekend, the U.S. Army formally established in Anne Arundel County a convalescent camp for recovering soldiers wounded in World War I.

The camp was made possible by the noted Baltimore surgeon and gynecologist Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly (1858-1943), with strong ties to Bel Air, who offered the Army use of 160 acres he owned along the Severn River about seven miles north of Annapolis.


The site, situated along the river between Whitney Point and Bluff Point in current day Severna Park, was named Camp Purnell for Maj. Harry S. Purnell (later Lt. Col. Purnell), commander of the U.S. Army General Hospital No. 2 that had been established at Fort McHenry in Baltimore soon after the United States entered The Great War the previous April.

The convalescent camp would serve thousands of soldiers over the next two and a half years, giving them an opportunity to be out in the country and on the water, where they could boat, fish, swim and hike, as they recovered from the horrors they experienced in a brutal combat fought with a range of modern weaponry, including tanks, airplanes and poisonous chemicals. The soldiers were also afforded job training at the camp.


Camp Purnell was Kelly's solution for inhospitable conditions he found at the Fort McHenry Hospital where, like many physicians in the city, he had attended the wounded, according to Jonathan Streett of Fallston.

Streett presented a history of Camp Purnell and Kelly's contributions to the war effort during a program Saturday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the camp's founding and Kelly's personal contributions to the war effort.

The program was held at Liriodendron, the Bel Air mansion Kelly built in 1898 for his family's summer home. Liriodendron was gifted to Harford County in the 1970s by Kelly's heirs and is operated as a museum, gallery and meeting and wedding venue by the nonprofit Liriodendron Foundation.

About 150 people attended, including a number of veterans. The Kelly family was represented by one of Howard Kelly's grandsons, Daniel Coates, a Havre de Grace resident, who served in the Army and Army Reserves for 40 years.

Streett, a merchant ship captain and a member of the Lirodendron Foundation Board, grew up a few doors down from the mansion and was friendly with the late Friedrich "Fritz" Kelly, one of Howard Kelly's nine children who lived in Bel Air a good portion of his life.

Who was Howard Kelly?

Streett talked briefly about Howard Kelly's background as a groundbreaking physician in the fields of surgery, anesthesiology and gynecology, who had friendships with Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and the medical illustrator Max Brodel, whom Kelly brought to the U.S. to illustrate his textbooks.

At age 31, Kelly became one of the four founding physicians of The Johns Hopkins Hospital along with William Osler, William Halstead and William Welch. Streett said Kelly had decided to take up a new challenge, moving him and his family south from Philadelphia, where he had helped establish the city's first hospital for women in the city's Kennsington section.


"Kelly was a prolific writer, authoring over 600 articles, books and texts," Streett said. "Many remain the standards of medicine, even today. He invented new techniques, procedures and equipment."

Streett said Kelly studied his Bible daily and was "a man of deep faith."

"He was also a man of action," Streett continued. "His faith led him to take a stand on moral issues," such as supporting prohibition of alcohol and being opposed to prostitution. "He supported equal rights for women in all aspects of education and voting rights," Streett said.

"His faith led him to be one of the great benefactors of his day. He consistently allotted 30 percent of his income to charity."

U.S. Army Hospital No. 2

Called by the U.S. Surgeon General to serve the wounded at Fort McHenry, Kelly became appalled at the overcrowded conditions at what was the Army's largest receiving hospital for troops, consisting of some 100 buildings crammed onto 40 acres around the original star-shaped fort, Streett said.


According to the Fort McHenry National Monument website, more than 20,000 wounded soldiers were treated at Fort McHenry, some staying for a few weeks, some for up to two years. The staff included 200 doctors, 300 nurses, 300 medical corpsman and 100 civilian hospital aides.

"As time went by, Fort McHenry became less a receiving hospital and more a surgical center," the website narrative states. "Army doctors, working with local medical schools and hospitals, developed many new surgical techniques."

Because much of the war's combat had occurred below ground in trenches, many of the soldiers physical injuries were to the head, face and jaw.

Many had neurological and psychological disorders that caught Kelly's attention, Streett said, and Kelly and other Hopkins doctors began working with doctors from the Sheppard Pratt Hospital to treat what would be identified as the first cases of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or shell shock in the parlance of the day.

Kelly felt these soldiers needed a place to recover away from the hospital where so many of their comrades had grievous physical wounds and many were dying, Streett said.

Not one to sit by and complain, Kelly took matters into his own hands, proposing to hospital commander Purnell that the less seriously wounded could be moved to Kelly's property on the Severn River, which he had used as a family retreat, Streett said.


Camp Purnell

Through various mortgages he held and auction purposes, Kelly had paid about $38,000 for the mostly wooded property, Streett said, which would be about $1.2 million today.

But having a site was one thing; they also needed buildings to house and feed the men, Streett said, and with a war on, the Army didn't have money for the project.

Undeterred, Kelly decided to organize an athletic competition among the Army posts and Navy posts in the region from which proceeds would be used to build the camp on the Severn, Streett said.

Using his contacts at Johns Hopkins, the first Army-Navy Camp Games were held at the university's Homewood Field in North Baltimore on Sept. 7, 1918. Competing camps included Camp Meade, Edgewood Arsenal, Fort Howard, Fort Holabird, Fifth Naval District, Curtis Bay and Fort McHenry.

There were competitions in baseball, running, grenade throwing, field events and football. "Ft. McHenry Hospital No. 2 won; no one lost," Streett said.


The games raised $10,000 (about $280,000 today), and next a call went out for skilled craftsmen to aid the soldiers in building the camp. Some 63 carpenters, electricians, plumbers and laborers answered the call and built a mess hall and barracks and other buildings for up to 200 soldiers.

"They built the only privately funded convalescent camp in the United States," Streett said. Assisted by the Red Cross, YMCA, local civic organizations, the American Library Association and churches, the soldiers at Camp Purnell had books, pool tables, swimming gear, boats and a movie theater.

The camp couldn't have come along soon enough, either, Streett said, because the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic swept through Baltimore in October 1918, killing more than 5,000 people in the city and state, according to a report in The Baltimore Evening Sun.

"The convalescent camp was essential in having a place to escape the overcrowded conditions and the flu," Streett said.

Camp Purnell operated until sometime in 1920, Streett said, then Ft. McHenry Hospital closed a few years later and the land on the Severn was returned to Kelly, who resold it to a family named Speer. Howard Kelly died in early 1943, 13 months after the United States had entered another world war.

"Camp Purnell is just one part of the legacy of Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly," Streett said. He was an active husband and father. He was the father of modern gynecology and a pioneer in social issues of his day, a naturalist, a philanthropist and a main of faith."


Camp Purnell today

Following Streett's presentation, the Lirioidendon Foundation received a Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. Army Center of Military History, presented to Kelly's great-grandson by U.S. Navy Commander David C. Van Brunt, who is assigned to the office of the Secretary of the Army with the U.S. Military Observer Group.

VanBrunt lives in Severna Park, where he grew up and graduated from Severna Park High School in 1989. He attended Anne Arundel Community College and then entered the U.S. Naval Academy, receiving his commission in 1994.

He said he has studied the location of Camp Purnell through maps and his familiarity with the area and said it includes the neighborhoods of Carrollton Manor, Whitney's Landing, Hollywood on the Severn and Bluff Point. The northern boundary was roughly Jumpers Hole Road between Benfield Boulevard and Whitney's Landing and the southern boundary around Forked Creek.

"Purnell Road in Carrollton Manor was likely named for the camp," Van Brunt said. "There was apparently some kind of marker erected there [Purnell and Jumpers Hole] but it's gone."

VanBrunt said there was one building that survived the camp for a number years but has since been razed, as all of the area has been developed for housing in the ensuing century.


Coates said he was "impressed" by Saturday's tribute to his great-grandfather.

"Really," he said, "until recently nobody even knew about this place."

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'A nation at war'

James McMahan, the Lirodendron Foundation president and a Harford County Councilman, organized Saturday's program, which featured color guards from the Marine Corps League and Bel Air Police Department, patriotic songs presented by a local group, the Just for Fun Singers.

Welcoming remarks were given by the senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor, and former Harford County Executive David Craig, who is executive director of the World War I Centennial Commission.

Taylor told the gathering it was an occasion "to honor and show what we value most is this country," as he thanked the veterans and their families seated on the mansion's front lawn in the warm spring sunshine.


"Today we are honoring Dr. Kelly but also are honoring you for your service," said the general, who also reminded everyone "we are still very much a nation at war" with some 179,000 men and women with the U.S. military deployed around the world.

Craig, a retired history teacher who has done years of research into Harford County's history, in particular concerning his native Havre de Grace, said the English and French allies would have lost World War I had the United States not sent its troops to fight. Some 116,000 Americans lost their lives, about half from battlefield injuries and the other half from disease, including the flu pandemic, Craig said.

More than 62,000 Marylanders served, including 11,000 African-Americans and 5,000 women, Craig said. More than 1,700 were killed.