This biographical sketch first appeared on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here courtesy of the publisher, Alexander Street.

By Krysten Diaz-Silveira, Undergraduate, University of Maryland, College Park

Dedicated nurse and politician
Helen Skipwith Wilmer Athey (August 1882 – ? 1964) 

Helen Athey was born in Baltimore, Maryland in August of 1882. She grew up and remained active in the Baltimore area throughout her entire life. She attended the Johns Hopkins Nursing School and graduated in 1905. She remained active in the Alumnae Association, eventually giving $30,000 to create a new nursing wing. She married Dr. Caleb Athey on August 2, 1909, and they eventually had two children: Isabelle and Wilmer. She was widowed in 1935 when Caleb passed away. She became the manager of the estate and also took care of her son Wilmer for a time after Caleb passed away.

During her time in the Johns Hopkins Alumnae Association, she wrote for the Alumnae Magazine and showed her political side. One of her more prominent writings was a call to action against the preparedness doctrine that was adopted by the federal government through the beginning of World War I. She showed her academic prowess by citing other academics of the time and making a poignant argument why women should not sign up to be nurses for this cause. As nurses, they were becoming more and more in demand just in case war became a reality.

After World War I, she did not let her activist spirit die down. She was appointed to the Board of Directors for the Maryland State Training School for Girls in 1918. This was a facility in which girls under the age of 21 could be admitted for any reason deemed reasonable by a judge or justice of the peace. This was the early beginnings of the juvenile justice system in America, and this was to be a community for girls who were deemed too “damaged” to continue to live with the rest of the community. The Board was to act as a non-partisan body that administrated this facility once it was built.

Shortly after, she was elected to the Maryland Woman Suffrage League as the First Legislative District of Baltimore. She was the representative for these women, who had shown “state-wide approval and interest” in fighting for suffrage. After this, her political interests were lit on fire. She acted as a Delegate At-Large at the Maryland Congress all the way through the 1930s, almost until she was 60 years old. She voted on the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the passage of the Nurse’s Registration Act, which would require more stringent qualifications to be named a “trained nurse.” In the end, some of these efforts were not successful, but she was always fighting for change.

She continued to be a valued alumna at Johns Hopkins, and is remembered as someone who always did what was needed. When asked to name different funds after her, she refused because she did not want to take recognition away from other nurses. She even worked during World War II doing everything she could to help in the operating room, even if she wasn’t exactly qualified to do so. She remained in Baltimore until she died in 1964, when she was almost 80 years old. When she passed away, she named the Johns Hopkins Alumnae Association her beneficiary.


More information about her involvement in the suffrage movement:

Census information that shows her date of birth, names of children, and where she lived:

More information about her involvement with Johns Hopkins Nursing School, also where the above photo can be found:

Her civic involvement is documented in many different documents saved by the Maryland archives. She acted as a Delegate-at-Large and as a board member for the Maryland Training School For Girls all of these documents show her involvement:

The article she wrote against women supporting preparedness, as well as a birth announcement for her son, and a mention of her dead father whose money was used to create improvements to the nursing school:

More information about her involvement at Johns Hopkins and how respected she was can be found in the Johns Hopkins archives. This is also the only place where her death date could be found:

March 15, 2017 Notes: 

Helen Skipwith Wilmer Athey: Dedicated Nurse and PoliticianThe search for Mrs. Caleb Athey was intense to say the least. The only leads I had were her husband’s name and where she lived. However, I did learn a lot about how memory works. From the beginning of the course, we had talked about how emotions play into what gets remembered. I noticed that all of her achievements in relation to Johns Hopkins were recorded in great detail by the Alumnae Association, but the other things that she did are pretty much lost to us. We know that she served on all these boards for different government entities, but nothing is said about the positions she took on these issues or any major contributions she made.

I started with a simple google search of these two pieces of information, and didn’t get very far. I found out that she had a position on the Woman’s Suffrage League of Maryland, but not much else. So then I started searching for marriage announcements, which I noticed were one of the few places that women’s real names were documented before they were forever known as the wife of their husband. Soon enough, I found that Helen Skipwith Wilmer had married Dr. Caleb Athey in 1909, and I was off to a great start. I searched census data in order to get a sense of what her family life was like. I learned that she had two children and continued her work as a nurse. I also discovered that she graduated from Johns Hopkins Nursing School and continued to work as a nurse for most of her life. After this though, I hit a slight dead end. Every time I searched a different variation of her name, the same things kept coming up. I looked in different databases, and nothing. The occasional social mention of her support of a local fashion show would come up, but nothing about her and her life.

When Professor Enoch gave me the link to the Johns Hopkins Alumnae Magazine, I made a huge breakthrough. I found out that she wrote articles for the alumnae magazine about current political issues. The one I found from 1916 impressed me a lot. She was remembered not only for her wealth and contributions to the hospital. She acted as an academic and a political entity separate from her husband. The way she is remembered by the Johns Hopkins Nurse’s Alumnae Association is a clear example of what Royster calls social circulation. Even though she may have had a prominent role in the Maryland suffrage movement, we can “see how ideas resonate, divide, and are expressed via new genres and new media. Noticing such ebbs and flows within ever-changing, often ever-broadening circles of interaction enables us to see how the past can reach into the present and how the close at and might reach toward the distant and further away, thus helping all of us imagine a future worth working towards as a more inclusive enterprise” (Royster, 101). The fact that Helen Athey is remembered as a key alumnae from Johns Hopkins Nursing School and not a member of the suffrage movement shows that the social circles she was a part of valued her ability as a nurse much more than her participation in the suffrage movement. I’m sure, as far as they were concerned, Helen only did that for a short period of time, while nursing was her entire life.

Another thing that I had to think about was the limitations of purely online research. Like we discussed in class, “we might be persuaded that cultivating a critical awareness of technology is important for theorizing researcher positionality” (Solberg, 55). In this day and age, most people think that everything can be found on the internet. However, the way that I now view Helen Athey is probably skewed simply by what is available on the internet. There may be vital facts about her life that are lost in an archive somewhere and may never be digitized. Even more to my point, technologies may “constrain or support types of research, or because technologies, as Langdon Winner [1989] suggests, ‘have politics'” (Solberg, 55). Maybe I had luck because she was such a prominent woman that Johns Hopkins has made it a point to memorialize her. But without that attachment to her memory, I probably would not have been able to find out when she died. There were no records of her death other than an In Memoriam article written by the magazine. She died a widow, and it didn’t seem like most of the community valued her like they once did in her youth. If it weren’t for the group of people who remembered the impact she had on the nursing school, she would have been lost for a greater portion of her life.

I feel much closer to Helen Athey as a result of this project. I want to be like her in so many ways. Not only did she serve on a board for juvenile delinquency facilities in the state of Maryland, but she was an advocate for what she believed in. In a time where women weren’t really allowed a voice, she did her part. And I want to emulate that spirit. The effort that I put into finding her really took off once I found the training school. I wanted to know who this woman was, and luckily I found her. And now other people who visit the database can learn that Helen Skipwith Wilmer Athey was so much more than Mrs. Caleb Athey from Baltimore. She was an activist and a philanthropist. She was a person in her own right, separate from her husband.