In recognition of Women’s History Month, we look at the remarkable life of a woman whose name may not be as widely known as her accomplishments would suggest. Such is the case of Elizabeth Coe Marshall.
Elizabeth Coe Marshall awoke one morning to the chirping of birds outside her window. She squeezed open her eyes to behold the brightness of the sun set in an azure blue sky. Spring was on its way. Every day it was growing warmer. The trees in the yard were budding and soon the tulips would be in full bloom. Oh, how she longed to walk in the garden and breathe in the fresh scent of the early morning air. But Elizabeth was unable to leave her comfortable, yet confining bedroom. She had taken a fall while alighting from her carriage one afternoon after returning from her Sunday School teaching duties at The First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo. Doctors were summoned to her home to set a severe fracture in one leg which would require her to stay immobile for weeks, first in bed, and later, on a chaise in her upstairs sitting room. A fever had also developed, causing great concern. It became evident that Elizabeth would need around the clock care beyond the scope her family could personally provide.
And so, a nurse was hired to attend Elizabeth for the kind of care only a well-trained medical professional could give. Happily, her parents Millicent and Orastus Holmes Marshall, were financially able to afford this service. Her father had opened his own law firm after passing the bar in 1834, later to be known as Philips Lytle. In 1851, he founded the Buffalo Female Academy which would become the Buffalo Seminary, one the city’s most prestigious educational institutions for young women to this day. And in 1874, Orastus Holmes Marshall succeeded former President Millard Fillmore as the 2nd Chancellor of the University of Buffalo, a post he held until 1884. He was also one of the first Trustees of Forest Lawn Cemetery.
It could be said that Elizabeth was indeed a wealthy and privileged woman. She could have spent a pampered life of ease, traveling the world if she had so desired. But Elizabeth was a woman of faith who believed in the Christian ideal of serving the poor and the sick.
It was during her convalescence, while being nursed in her home that she may have been introduced to the writings of two very influential women. The first was Clara Barton, the educator and nurse, dubbed the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War, who later founded the American Red Cross in 1881. The other was the world renowned “Lady of the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War who had in 1860, founded the first secular nursing school in London.
It became clear to Elizabeth during this time that many others in her own community may have need of the kind of home nursing care that she could enjoy. She believed that home nursing should be available for all, regardless of their ability to pay. She began to envision the creation of a non-profit organization dedicated to that concept. She started collecting funds from her Sunday school students and approached the church itself for monetary support to hire the first nurse, Mary Taylor, newly graduated from the Buffalo General School of Nursing to begin a visiting nursing service to the city’s poor and sick population. Thus, began the practice of nurses traveling to the homes of the sick, recuperating and disabled.
nation and remains the largest home health agency in Western New York and one of the largest VNA’s in America.
From its humble beginnings, the VNA movement migrated across the country. Today, there are over 500 VNA’s, employing more than 90,000 clinicians, providing healthcare to more than 4 million people each year with a critical safety net enabling patients to live independently at home.
In 2005, Elizabeth Coe Marshall was inducted into the WNY Women’s Hall of Fame and honored as the creator of the home health industry.
Elizabeth died in 1892 at the early age of 45. She is buried here in Forest Lawn Cemetery. She never married or had a family, yet her vision to tend the sick, the poor and to care for all those in need has no doubt saved the lives and brought healing to millions of children and adults alike across the nation. Her legacy lives on today, 138 years after the founding of the VNA. In addition to skilled nursing and rehabilitation, it offers services such as home oxygen and the area’s largest infusion pharmacy which involves the administration of medication directly into the bloodstream treating cancer, serious infections, intractable pain and other diseases. The recent establishment of the Elizabeth Coe Marshall Nursing Scholarships at the University at Buffalo School of Nursing will help ensure the future of the nursing profession.
All of this came about because one young, wealthy, and privileged woman practiced what she preached, the words of Jesus that she taught her students at Sunday school. She lived the life of brotherhood, of giving back, of mercy, of charity, of the golden rule. And perhaps like Clara Barton, Elizabeth became the “Angel of Buffalo.”