Profile of a Famous Nurse: Lillian Gordy Carter

1970: Four years later, Jimmy Carter would be elected governor on his second try. Here, he celebrates on election night with Rosalynn and his mother Miss Lillian. (Billy Downs / AJC Archive at the GSU Library AJCN089-019b)

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1970: Four years later, Jimmy Carter would be elected governor on his second try. Here, he celebrates on election night with Rosalynn and his mother Miss Lillian. (Billy Downs / AJC Archive at the GSU Library AJCN089-019b)

Although she's best known as the mother of President Jimmy Carter, Lillian Gordy Carter lived a remarkable life of her own. During an era when women were expected to take a backseat to their husbands and children, she carved out her own niche as a nurse, social activist and Peace Corps volunteer.

Born on Aug. 15, 1898 in Richland, Carter volunteered as an Army nurse in 1917, but the program was cancelled before she could serve. Undaunted, she entered a nurse training program in Plains in 1920 and completed her degree at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in 1923.

She married James Earl Carter soon after graduation and gave birth to the future president in 1924. Although she had three more children by 1937, “Miss Lillian” worked as a nurse practitioner in caring for employees of her husband’s businesses and for people in the community, including African-Americans during the height of segregation.

In his book, “An Hour Before Daylight,” President Carter recalled his mother’s nursing:

“Since we lived several miles from town among neighbors who were very poor and whose best transportation, if any, was a mule and wagon, my mother cared for many of them almost as a doctor, often providing both diagnosis and treatment. There may have been other nurses who did this, but I never heard of it. Mama was a special person, who refused to acknowledge most racial distinctions and spent many hours with our black neighbors. She never charged them anything for her help, but they would usually bring her what they could afford — a shoat, some chickens, a few dozen eggs, or perhaps blackberries or chestnuts.”

Lillian Carter’s stint in the Peace Corps began in 1966, when she volunteered for the organization at the unlikely age of 68. In fact, Peace Corps officials required her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before they trained her. She took her nursing skills and served in India for almost two years, working with lepers and teaching villagers about birth control.

After returning from India, she wrote this to her children:

“I didn’t dream that in this remote corner of the world, so far away from the people and material things that I had always considered so necessary, I would discover what life is really all about, sharing yourself with others — and accepting their love for you is the most precious gift of all.

“If I had one wish for my children, it would be that each of you would dare to do the things and reach for goals in your own lives that have meaning for you as individuals, doing as much as you can for everybody, but not worrying if you don’t please everyone.”

During her son’s political career and presidency, Lillian Carter was known for her down-home candor and gave hundreds of speeches on the campaign trail.

Carter received the Covenant of Peace award in 1977 from the Synagogue Council of America and was named honorary chair of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council in 1980.

With her three surviving children by her side, Carter died of pancreatic cancer in 1983 in Americus.

In 2001, Emory University opened the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in her honor. Its mission is “the improvement of the health of vulnerable people worldwide through nursing education, research, practice, and policy.”

Every other year, the Peace Corps’ Lillian Carter Award recognizes an outstanding volunteer who served after the age of 50. The award goes to someone who demonstrates a commitment to the Peace Corps’ third goal: helping Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries.

READ MORE:
President Carter's mother, "Miss Lillian" just wanted to serve

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