The mother of President Jimmy Carter, Lillian Gordy, is equally famous for her own remarkable life as a nurse, social activist and Peace Corps volunteer.
In 1917, Carter volunteered as an Army nurse shortly before the program was cancelled. Unable to officially serve, Carter enrolled in a nursing program in Plains, Georgia, completing her training in 1923 at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. Soon after graduation, she married James Earl Carter and gave birth to the future president. She went on to have three more children while she worked as a nurse practitioner, caring for her husband’s employees and people within her community. Lillian’s primary patients were African-American members of the community and she dedicated her time to managing their healthcare during the peak of segregation.
President Carter noted in his book An Hour Before Daylight, “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.”
“Miss Lillian,” as her patients knew her, continued her passion to serve and educate well into retirement with a stint in the Peace Corps at the age of 68. She used her nursing skills to serve in India for almost two years, working with lepers and teaching villagers about birth control.
Lillian’s legacy to serve continues to this day. In 2001, Emory University opened the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in her honor, with a mission focused on “the improvement of the health of vulnerable people worldwide through nursing education, research, practice, and policy.” Also, the Peace Corps awards the Lillian Carter Award every other year to an outstanding volunteer over the age of 50. The award is reserved for someone who demonstrates a commitment to helping Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries.
A leader in her own right, Lillian Gordy Carter set an example for all to make the world a better place. From serving as a nurse in the Peace Corps in India to bridging cultural gaps in Georgia, her nursing skills and her compassion established her as an influential nurse in the United States.