From war-ravaged Poland in 1921-1922, to famine in Russia, from an Ashram in West Bengal, India, to the coal mining regions of West Virginia, from a remote village on the Volga River to an African-American Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, Rebecca’s life journey took many unexpected turns. Around every corner and along every path in her journey, stood the American Friends Service Committee, a constant signpost measuring the distance she had come and pointing to the challenges that lay ahead.
“Vincent Nicholson, the first Executive Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, was the one to put the thought of nursing into my head,” Rebecca recalled in an oral history. Many of her friends were going to France in 1917 to work with the War Victims Relief Committee. Vincent Nicholson told Rebecca that if she were a nurse they could use her right away. But, Rebecca hated the idea of nursing, although her father was a respected doctor. Nor was she an academic like her uncle Jesse Webb, a professor at Swarthmore College. By her senior year at Columbia Teachers College, Rebecca had developed no special interests. Her future she thought would involve marriage, children, and a settled life, “After all, a career is splendid,” she wrote, “but a normal life is the great one.”
Rebecca’s path took a sudden turn in 1918, the spring of her senior year. She went to hear an Army nurse who had just returned from France, speaking on the need for nurses on the Western front. Rebecca, a Quaker and a pacifist, was scornful at first, until,
“Suddenly I felt lifted outside myself, and felt placed in the hand of God which turned me, not my body, but my spirit, slowly, so that I was looking in the opposite direction. All the feeling against nursing left me and I was returned to my own body knowing that God wanted me to be a nurse. I felt nothing but joy at the prospect and a sense of ecstasy was with me for days afterward.”
After her graduation, Rebecca enrolled in a two-year nursing program. She received her nurse’s diploma in the summer of1920 and applied to the American Friends Service Committee, hoping to nurse in France, or possible Russia. Instead she was assigned to Poland, where a joint mission of British and American Friends had been formed to organize anti-typhus work, as well as post-war relief and reconstruction.
When she arrived in Warsaw in the winter of 1921, Rebecca found a city struggling under the weight of a million tragedies. She mourned for the thousands of orphaned children: “They had scurvy sores, rickety legs, and swollen abdomens. . . . little bodies, large heads, wise faces. . . Poor little undernourished mites. . .” Her first impressions of the Quaker Mission were almost as grim. The housing was cramped, heating was almost non-existent, and the food was terrible. She disliked the Bohemian atmosphere, and noticed friction between William Fogg, a Quaker businessman from Philadelphia who had recently been appointed head of the unit, and the British volunteers. To add to her dismay, the anti-typhus work that had first brought Quakers to Poland had been turned over in large part to the newly formed Polish government. Rebecca wrote, “I was terribly upset about not being allowed to nurse typhus. I suppose that means I will be put underdog in child welfare. I feel very blue about it all.”
But Rebecca knew her duty. Tons of cottonseed meal had been donated to Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration, the largest relief program in post-war Europe. William Fogg negotiated for $50,000 worth of the meal, rich in albumen, and useful fodder for the starving cows. The Polish farmers paid back the loan of the cotton seed meal with excess milk instead of money, and the milk was distributed to the children in orphanages and institutions, thereby helping to alleviate rickets and other side effects of malnutrition. The Quaker Mission oversaw The Cottonseed Meal Project, or Krople Mleke as it was known in Polish, in twelve cities. Rebecca was assigned to visit the orphanages and institutions in each of the cities and report on the numbers of children so that milk would go to the places where the need was greatest.
In April 1921, two months after she arrived in Poland, Rebecca’s life took another unexpected turn. She met Harry Timbres, a recent graduate from Haverford College, and a new volunteer to the Quaker Mission. At first Rebecca dismissed him as “a lad just out of college,” but Harry’s s enthusiasm for Rebecca won her heart. By August they were engaged, although Rebecca still had doubts about marrying a farmer and a convinced Bolshevik.
In December 1921, a crisis occurred in the Quaker unit. Rebecca was nursing Dr. Tatum, a volunteer who had come down with typhus. She asked that Harry be assigned as her orderly. During that tense and frightening ordeal, during which they almost lost Dr. Tatum, Rebecca realized Harry had the gift for healing, that he would become a doctor, and their future together would be a life of service. They were married in Poland in March 1922, and left almost immediately for Russia, their next assignment with the American Friends Service Committee.
The next years were challenging. In 1927, their first child, Nancy, died suddenly at the age of four. Harry received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1928, and hoped to return to Russia, but their visa applications were consistently denied. In 1930, the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore was invited by the AFSC to visit the United States. Both Harry and Rebecca admired Tagore’s writing, and arrangements were made for them to work with Tagore at his ashram in Bengal, India. Supported by the AFSC, Rebecca and Harry and their two young daughters lived in India for three years. Harry, who had done post graduate work in tropical diseases, helped to establish rural health clinics in the fight against malaria. Rebecca trained healthcare workers. The family returned to the United States in 1934 after Harry contracted malaria.
While Harry recovered his health, the family lived at Arthurdale, the planned community in West Virginal, co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. Harry was the Director of Health at the experimental school. In 1936, Harry finally obtained a visa and sailed immediately for the Soviet Union, offering his services as an expert in tropical diseases. He was assigned to a remote outpost on the Volga River. Rebecca and the two girls quickly followed.
Their year in Soviet Russia ended suddenly, and tragically. Harry contracted typhus in the spring of 1937, and although Rebecca tried to nurse him, she was hampered by the most primitive conditions, living in a log cabin without running water or indoor plumbing. Harry’s death left Rebecca and her two daughters broken-hearted and almost penniless in the wilderness of central Russia.
Even then, Rebecca’s resilient spirit didn’t completely desert her. She returned to the United States, went back to school, and received her Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University in 1941. She worked on staff with the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia before being asked to become Dean of Nursing at a small African-American Medical college in Tennessee.
Following her marriage to Edgar Clark in 1946, Rebecca moved to Hawaii where she worked as a medical social worker until Edgar’s death in 1961. When she returned to the States, she continued to serve on boards and committees of the AFSC almost until her death at the age of 103.
Surely Rebecca’s life of service represents the qualities referred to by Gunnar John in his Nobel presentation speech to the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker Peace and Service London in 1947. The Quakers with their “message of good deeds”, and actions of goodwill “from the nameless to the nameless,” were laying the foundations of hope for peace between nations.
For more on the life and work of Rebecca Janey Timbers Clark and the Quaker mission in Russia, you can consult her book “We Didn’t Ask Utopia” Also the author of this article, Lyndon S. Back, member of the Friends Historical Association has written a Pendle Hill Pamphlet entitled “Rebecca Janney Timbres Clark: Turned in the Hand of God” which was published in 2007.