1. Wall, Barbra Mann PhD, RN


Historical photographic evidence is not as straightforward as it might appear.


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Shortly after 9 am on April 16, 1947, a cargo ship containing more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the Gulf Coast port of Texas City, Texas, killing more than 500 people and injuring thousands in the worst industrial catastrophe in United States history.1-3 The force of the explosion shattered windows in Houston, 40 miles north, and was felt in Louisiana, 250 miles away. Many industrial buildings near the dock were flattened, and flaming debris ignited fires on nearby ships, in chemical and petroleum storage tanks on shore, and in houses and buildings throughout the city. A second ship containing about 1,000 tons of the same fertilizer, as well as 2,000 tons of sulfur, caught fire and exploded about 1 am the next morning. (Besides its use as fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is also used in munitions. By comparison, the truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995 contained about 2.5 tons of ammonium nitrate, along with other explosives.) A relief effort was mobilized, involving military personnel, police, firefighters, and health care providers from many communities. Hospitals in Houston, Galveston, and other surrounding cities admitted hundreds of patients.


The photograph on the next page shows nurses and other personnel in a hallway crowded with injured patients at St. Joseph's Infirmary in Houston, soon after the disaster occurred. The identities of the photographer and the subjects of the photograph are unknown. The nun is a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a member of the religious order that owned and operated St. Joseph's. (This photograph is from the archives of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Villa de Matel, Houston.) Three different Incarnate Word hospitals joined the relief effort, either by sending nurses to the site or treating patients in their facilities.


According to historian Rima Apple, "historical photographic research contributes much to the study of people and relationships" and can provide "details of the hospital environment not described in written and oral records."4 A photograph like this one can be valuable for historical study in at least two ways: it depicts the disorder in a hospital after a catastrophe, during a time when disaster planning was rare, and it represents racial relationships at a time and place when segregation was still a fact of life for both black and white Americans.


Part of the power of photographs, particularly historical photographs, is that they seem to provide an unvarnished picture of reality, to present the actual appearance of real people and real places. But as the essayist Susan Sontag, among others, has argued, photographs should also be regarded as artifacts that incorporate and reflect the ideologic assumptions and cultural conventions of their time.5, 6 When using photographs as evidence of "reality," we must ask, Whose reality is depicted? Whose eye selected what to photograph and what to exclude? Whose eye framed and composed the picture? As Apple notes, in historical analysis, it's important to look at photographs as more than simple illustrations; rather, they should be approached as complex primary-source documents that can carry some of the same biases as written historical records.4

Figure. Soon after a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Soon after an explosion on the Gulf Coast of Texas killed 500 people and injured thousands in April 1947, pandemonium reigned at a Houston hospital. What does this image tell us about the relationships depicted-those between nurses and patients and those between blacks and whites?

For example, we know where and approximately when this photograph was taken, but what does it tell us about the social relationships of the subjects? The nun in the center of the picture seems to lend an air of calm to an unsettling situation. The facial expressions and body language of the other subjects suggest that they weren't posing for the photographer. Still, the image can be read in several ways; our interpretations should be checked against other sources to avoid unwarranted assumptions and conclusions.


One useful description of the chaos of that day comes from the Annals of St. Joseph's Infirmary, dated April 16, 19477:


The terrible explosion at Texas City caused a great deal of commotion and excitement in the city and surroundings. Poor suffering patients were rushed to the emergency room in all sorts of conveyances. There were over fifty treated. Although some were dead and unidentified, others had broken bones and burns and were painfully shocked. It was a pathetic sight to see the anxious faces of relatives trying to get information on their loved ones.


In addition to what it shows us about a hospital trying to cope with a disaster, the photograph also subtly suggests aspects of the racial tensions that pervaded the South at this time. During the first half of the 20th century, the Jim Crow laws in Southern states permitted racial segregation in all public facilities, and it existed in health care, as well. As white nurses embraced professionalization, black nurses faced hostility and restrictions on their access to education and membership in professional associations. While some schools of nursing in the North adopted racial quotas, schools in the South denied admission to black women.8 It wasn't until 1950, three years after the Texas City disaster, that the American Nurses Association's House of Delegates voted for "full participation of minority groups in association activities" and to eliminate "discrimination in job opportunities, salaries, and other working conditions."9


One interpretation of this photograph is that, because blacks and whites are shown working side by side, Americans could set aside racial prejudices in times of disaster-at least temporarily-and work toward a common goal. In fact, corroborating evidence for this view can be found in several written sources. For example, in a compilation of memoirs composed one year after the disaster, a Texas City drugstore owner described how he opened a first aid station and, along with volunteers, began bandaging the injured. Conscious of the racial norms of the day, he pointed out, "We bandaged everyone, whites, Negroes, Mexicans."10 In a letter to his family, a white medical student wrote, "For the first time in my life, I didn't care whether a man was white or black. I worked with both equally at ease. It didn't make a bit of difference as both were sick, and all needed to be cared for."11 One of the nursing students was amazed that at the scene of the disaster, "everything began to fall into place and regardless of rank or race we were a team."12 In the context of these accounts, the photograph might be taken as evidence that, after a disaster of such magnitude, rigid social boundaries were blurred or suspended.


Two events that occurred after the disaster brought people of different races and classes together. One was the first mixed-race memorial service in Texas City history. The other was a mass burial held for the unidentified dead. Because blacks and whites couldn't be buried together in existing cemeteries, and the unidentified remains couldn't be sorted by race, the leaders of Texas City created a new cemetery specifically for this purpose. This event made a strong impression on some black, Hispanic, and white survivors, who recalled that their shared agony temporarily reduced social barriers.3


But other written accounts of the disaster and its aftermath tell a different story. For example, a report in a local black newspaper, the Houston Informer, supports the idea that racial and class tensions persisted despite the emergency. An article about two ministers who helped at the disaster site states that, "when they began their rescue work, the Negro injured were being walked over while the whites were being rescued."13 While the article lacked photographs, it's not hard to imagine that the photograph shown here could have been used to illustrate such a story: the blacks are on one side of the photo and the whites are on the other; the nun assists a white woman while the injured black nurse waits in a wheelchair.

Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.

Ultimately, the image resists a single, unambiguous interpretation. My own view is conditioned somewhat by the work I've done on the history of Catholic hospitals. As I noted in my book, Unlikely Entrepreneurs: Catholic Sisters and the Hospital Marketplace, 1865-1925, spiritual concerns may fuel the work of nurses who belong to religious orders, but their work on hospital wards and in EDs, where they're exposed to the stress of emergencies and to potentially life-threatening illnesses, belies the notion that these sisters and nurses are merely passive, praying women.14 Looking at this photograph, I see the centrality of the nun, who is also a nurse, as confirmation that Catholic hospitals are not only medical institutions but also sacred spaces.


For more images of the Texas City disaster, see




1. Associated Press. Blasts and fires wreck Texas city of 15,000; 300 to 1,200 dead; thousands hurt, homeless; wide coast area rocked, damage in millions. New York Times 1947 Apr 17;1. [Context Link]


2. Moore Memorial Public Library. The 1947 Texas City Disaster, April 16 and 17, 1947. n.d. [Context Link]


3. Stephens HW. The Texas City disaster, 1947. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press; 1997. [Context Link]


4. Apple R. Picturing the hospital: Photographs in the history of an institution. In: Long DE, Golden JL, editors. The American general hospital: communities and social contexts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 1989. p. 67-81. [Context Link]


5. Sontag S. On photography. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1977. [Context Link]


6. Sontag S. Regarding the pain of others. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2003. [Context Link]


7. Annals of St. Joseph's Infirmary. Houston, TX 1947. Villa de Matel Archives, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. [Context Link]


8. Hine DC. Black women in white: racial conflict and cooperation in the nursing profession 1890-1950. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 1989. [Context Link]


9. Staupers MK. Story of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Am J Nurs 1951;51:222-3. [Context Link]


10. Wheaton EL. Texas City remembers. Texas City, TX: Naylor Company; 1948. [Context Link]


11. Sam to folks. [personal letter]. Galveston, TX 1947. University of Texas Medical Branch Library, Blocker Historical Collections. [Context Link]


12. Givens LP. Texas City disaster memoir. Galveston, TX 1948. University of Texas Medical Branch Library, Blocker Historical Collections. [Context Link]


13. Baptist ministers risk lives to evacuate injured. Houston Informer 1947 Apr 19; 1, 10. [Context Link]


14. Wall BM. Unlikely entrepreneurs: Catholic sisters and the hospital marketplace, 1865-1925. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press; 2005. [Context Link]