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The Nurse Who Saved Thousands from the Greek and Armenian Genocide

Sara Corning nurse Greek genocide
Sara Corning’s headstone was inscribed with the words “She Lived to Serve Others.” Public Domain

Sara Corning was a Canadian nurse who saved thousands of Armenian and Greek orphans during the Genocide in Turkey.

Her life of dedication and offering to fellow human beings made her a prominent figure in Canada, Armenia, and Greece where descendants of the Genocide have been honoring her contribution.

Corning was born in the village of Chegoggin, Nova Scotia in 1872. At 24, Sara decided to become a nurse. She moved to the United States for training and worked in New England for almost twenty years. Her first experience with disaster relief likely came in 1917, when she returned to Nova Scotia to help the 10,000 victims of the Halifax Explosion.

Corning saves thousands of Armenian and Greek orphans

In 1918, at the age of 46, Corning was certified by the American Red Cross. She joined Near East Relief, an organization created to help civilians affected by World War I, in 1919. Soon after, she landed in Constantinople (Istanbul) with 250 other relief workers.

She helped rescue and care for thousands of Armenian and Greek orphans over the next decade often risking her life in the process.

Corning’s first post was in the South Caucasus in the Republic of Armenia. Stationed near Yerevan, she worked among hundreds of thousands of starving refugees who were often infected with typhoid and cholera.

Her second post was at Anatolia College in north-central Anatolia. Most mornings, Sara and her colleagues would gather babies left at the college’s entrance by desperate parents.

World War I had ended in 1918 but postwar conflicts continued to rage. The Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922 was one such conflict. By September 1922, Turkish forces were pushing an invading Greek army back to the Aegean coastal city of Smyrna (Izmir).

Corning in the midst of the Greek, Armenian Genocide in Smyrna

Amid the turmoil, hundreds of thousands of people flooded into Smyrna with hopes of being rescued by Allied warships. The United States Navy chose to pursue a policy of strict non-involvement, however, and the Red Cross and Near East Relief were instructed to evacuate only those who were U.S. citizens.

A medical team, which included Corning, was assigned to assist. Initially forbidden from bringing locals aboard the ships, they were able to set up triage stations for the refugees.

On September 13th, a conflagration began to rage. As Turkish forces entered the city, entire neighborhoods were set ablaze. Under these conditions, Corning and her colleagues rescued hundreds of children trapped inside two schools. They led them through the smoke and bloodshed, finally delivering them to American warships headed for Greece.

The brave nurse established new orphanages in Greece

In Greece, Corning helped establish new orphanages and became responsible for running one herself. She adopted five girls and funded their education.

For her bravery, King George II of Greece awarded her the Knight’s Silver Cross of the Order of the Redeemer, one of the country’s highest honors. She was reassigned to Anatolia College in the late 1920s and worked in the new Republic of Turkey until the college closed in 1930.

Returning to Chegoggin, she lived in her childhood home until her death in 1969 at the age of 97. Her headstone was inscribed with the words “She Lived to Serve Others.”

In 2016, the Sara Corning Society was established in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia to commemorate Corning’s heroic deeds. A memorial was built to honor her memory.

Her statue now stands on the grounds of the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives—a heartwarming tribute to her and the brave children who she helped rescue and care for. Credit: Facebook/Sara Corning Society

According to the founders of the society, David and Jennifer Chown, the sculptor’s work reflects Armenian roots, and Sara would have been deeply touched that someone from the country and people she came to know so well created a statue in her honor a hundred years later.


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