Margaret Smith profiles the pioneer of hospice care

When Rose Hawthorne was born on 20th May 1851, the third, and some say favourite, daughter of the famous American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, she seemed destined for a life of luxury.

Even when she had lost both her parents, her only son and her alcoholic husband and she was only forty-five, she could still have looked forward to a comfortable life.

But she spent her remaining years caring for those worse off than she was and her life became more of a ‘riches to rags’ story than one of ‘rags to riches’.

Her childhood years were spent travelling around Europe. Her father served as American Consul in Liverpool and from England the family moved on to Italy, where Rose was fascinated by the “scruffy looking Friars” she saw walking through the streets of Rome. One story claims that one day she literally ‘ran into’ Pope Pius IX in the Vatican gardens.

The family had only been back in New England four years when her father died and her mother decided to take the children to live in Germany. In Dresden, the Hawthornes met another American family, the Lathrops, and Rose quickly became very friendly with one of their sons, George.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war forced them to leave Germany, but no sooner had they arrived back in England than her mother died of typhoid in 1871.

After burying her mother, Rose decided to marry George Lathrop, much against the wishes of her remaining family. Not only did George appear to be mentally unstable, he also had what one magazine described as “problems with intemperance”. The family’s misgivings proved to be correct. It was a tempestuous marriage, George may have been a talented writer, but he suffered frequent illnesses, no doubt brought on by his addiction to alcohol.

The birth of their son, Francis, did seem to bring the couple closer for a while and their future looked bright. Sadly, Francis died at the age of five, but, somewhat surprisingly, both Rose and her husband were attracted to Catholicism and their conversion in 1891 was an act, which, it was said, “scandalised Protestant America.”

The couple may have agreed on their faith but unfortunately this wasn’t enough to keep them together. By 1895 they had separated and George died three years later from cirrhosis. Finding herself alone and with no responsibilities, Rose embarked on a life of selfless service to those cast out by society – cancer sufferers.

A friend, Emma Lazarus, author of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, suffered from cancer and, whilst she had been well cared for until her death, there were so many others who were not so fortunate. Many believed that the illness was contagious and sufferers weren’t allowed to stay in New York’s hospitals. 

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