Renaissance Woman May Borden

           “Florence Nightingale of WWI”


May Borden.





By Megan McKinney



Sportsman/explorer John Borden was but one of four remarkable children produced by William and Mary Whiting Borden. While they were growing up, John’s sister May accompanied their father to the new country clubs springing up north and west of the city and became proficient at the emerging sport of golf.


Charles Blair Macdonald’s Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton.


She graduated from Vassar College with a BA in 1907 and from then on was an international woman. Drawn to medicine, she was an early Red Cross volunteer.


May began her medical career by volunteering for the Red Cross.


On a Far Eastern tour, May met and married Scottish missionary George Douglas Turner. They were soon parents of three daughters, Joyce, born 1909, Comfort, 1910, and Mary, 1914.


 The Turner Paris house at 13 Rue Monsieur.


May’s volunteer nursing developed further in 1914 when, with the outbreak of the World War I, she established a fully-equipped field hospital on the Western Front. She personally funded the 100-bed unit from her share of Borden money, and, although the French army provided doctors and surgeons, she supervised the nurses, remaining with the unit throughout the war.


May on rounds in her personal hospital.


Known as the “Florence Nightingale of the Great War,” May Borden Turner received British medals of distinction and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government.


 “Florence Nightingale of the Great War.”


During a horrific battle in October 1916, she met and fell in love with Edward Louis Spears, head of the British Military Mission in Paris from 1917 to 1920. He would become a major general, an English baronet and member of Parliament. Born of British parents in 1886 in the fashionable district of Passy in Paris, he was particularly known for his role as a liaison officer between British and French forces in both World Wars.


Sir Edward Louis Spears.


The meeting with Spears was explosively passionate, with intense magnetism on both sides. By spring 1917, May and Spears were lovers at the Front, causing her husband to separate from her and take custody of their three daughters. The affair continued until the adulterous couple married at the British Consulate in Paris some three months after her divorce in January 1918.  


Sir Edward Louis Spears.



Lady Spears.


The Spears’ only child, Michael Justin Aylmer Spears, born in 1921, would not have a pleasant life. As an adolescent, he contracted osteomyelitis and would continue to be in poor health from then until his early death at 47. 

Another blow to May’s happiness was the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which wiped out the fortune upon which she and Spears had relied.


12 Strathearn Place was the London home of Louis and May before, during and after World War II. Here, they entertained politicians, journalists and businessmen.


Meanwhile the former “Florence Nightingale” had switched her energies from nursing to writing, gaining considerable fame as a novelist and poet.



In his role as head of the British Military Mission in France, Sir Edward would rescue Charles de Gaulle from occupied Paris by whisking him in his plane to London in June 1940; Spears later served as first minister in Syria and Lebanon

During World War II, May was once again running a field hospital with 100 beds. This facility, the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, was funded by British steel tycoon Sir Robert Hadfield, whose American wife was a friend and colleague of May’s from World War I.



In the early 1940s, Sir Edward, rear left, became first British minister to the Levant. He and May, center in a white suit, are pictured on the steps of their residence in Lebanon. With Sir Edward at rear right is Henry Hopkinson, private secretary to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Bracketing May are Richard Casey, minister resident in the Middle East, and his wife Ethel. 

Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on The Bordens will continue next week with Joyce Borden’s Golden Goat.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl