The Fellowship | January 4, 2019
Lived: February 3, 1884 – February 5, 1984
Why you should know her: Lovingly called “Schwester Selma” (Sister Selma or Nurse Selma in German), Mayer served as the head nurse of Fellowship-funded Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem for nearly half a century.
Born to a poor Jewish family in Hanover Germany, Selma Mayer lost her mother at an early age. Because she and her four young siblings were orphaned, Selma later wrote:
Because I lost my mother very early and therefore had a rather difficult youth, a strong need grew in me to give people that which I had missed so much: mother-love and love of human beings. Therefore I chose the profession of nursing.
Selma began this profession as a nurse in 1906 in Hamburg, Germany. Training in internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and obstetrics, Selma and a colleague became the first Jewish nurses to receive a German State Diploma.
While World War I spread across Europe, the Holy Land was also in need of nurses. In 1916, Dr. Moshe Wallach from Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem traveled to Europe to find a head nurse for the institution he ran. In Hamburg, he met and was impressed by Selma, who agreed to fulfill her three years of wartime service in what was then still Ottoman-ruled Palestine.
Selma undertook a four-week train trip to the Holy Land, traveling through wartorn Central Europe, Turkey, and Damascus. As she arrived in Jerusalem, the Holy City was enduring a year-long epidemic of typhoid, typhus, and meningitis. The hospital’s 40 beds were filled, and its untrained workers were open to infection. Selma quickly cured this, outfitting staff with overalls and hoods, and ordering all patients to be washed and shaved. New standards of nursing were also introduced by the hospital’s new head nurse, including white uniforms for all staff, daily changing of bedsheets and uniforms, and daily bathing of all patients.
At the time, the hospital’s technology was very primitive (which had contributed to the trouble of finding a head nurse who would stay), as Shaare Zedek had no electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, or cooking gas. Kerosene heaters warmed bathwater, while paraffin lamps lit operating rooms. Despite these conditions, Selma worked 18-hour days, along with the staff of nurses, operating-room workers, and midwives that she trained and supervised.
Along with her duties as head nurse, Selma also subbed for midwives in emergencies, and acted as Dr. Wallach’s assistant when it came to such procedures as uterine curettages, tracheotomies, and circumcisions.
Despite all of these responsibilities, Nurse Selma was known for her warm demeanor and her personal care of each patient — care that continues to be the standard to this day at the Fellowship-funded hospital. Selma would remind those who worked and trained under her that “Those who come to us need help.” And this help was extended to patients regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
Some highlights of Selma’s long career include: assisting specialists for 23 straight hours as they operated on victims of the 1929 Hebron massacre; delivering food and medicine to the besieged city of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence; and keeping the iron lung machines running during Israel’s polio epidemic in the 1950s.
Selma also founded the Shaare Zedek Nursing School in 1934, teaching all of the practical nursing classes herself in the school’s early years.
A tiny woman who never married and lived her life in a sparse room in the hospital, Selma adopted three girls who had been abandoned at the hospital. One of the girls was killed in the 1948 Ben Yehuda Street bombing, but the other two followed in their adopted mother’s footsteps, one becoming a nurse and the other a dental technician.
Selma worked well into her eighties, still picking up trash off of the hospital floors and training new staff. She passed away only days after turning 100, but her loving nature still inspires those who provide care to patients in the Holy City.