Monday, November 4, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Dr. Regina Flood Keyes Roberts

by Erin Doane, Curator

Regina Flood Keyes was born in Elmira on April 18, 1870. At that time, few people would have guessed that her life would include time as a field surgeon in war-torn Europe and as a humanitarian worker in Fiji and Samoa. And it is highly unlikely that anyone would have predicted that she would die at sea during a prisoner exchange with Japan.

Dr. Regina Flood Keyes, 1917
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Regina graduated from the University of Buffalo School of Medicine in 1896. She worked for Buffalo General Hospital as a gynecologist in 1899 and was the first woman to ever do abdominal surgery in the city. She went on to work as an obstetrician at Erie County Hospital and as an instructor in medicine at the University of Buffalo. In 1917, after the United States became involved in World War I, she took a leave of absence to join the American Red Cross and was sent to Europe to take charge of a hospital in the Balkans with her cousin from Elmira Dr. Mabel Flood

Dr. Regina Flood Keyes (left) and Dr. Mabel Flood (center)
treating a patient, 1919. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The hospital had been a Turkish schoolhouse before being renovated into a hospital and when the pair arrived, it was woefully lacking in basic supplies. It had no operating table, beds, or stove and very few medical supplies. With Regina as director and surgeon and Mabel as chief doctor, they were able to build the facility up until it was one of the best-respected hospitals in the region. They treated both locals and war-wounded and worked through flu and typhus epidemics. Regina even served the French Army for a time as a regimental surgeon.

American Red Cross workers, 1919. Dr. Keyes is seated in the
front row, third from the left. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Both women stayed in Europe after the war until 1920. Mabel returned to the United States and Regina married Quincy F. Roberts who was serving as the U.S. vice-consul in Thessaloniki. From then on, she accompanied him around the world on his diplomatic missions. He served as vice-consul in Samoa and then in Fiji where he was promoted to consul. Every place they lived, Regina was involved in local healthcare and child welfare work. Her position as wife of the consul helped her bring in aid money, but she was also personally involved in organizing projects to help women and children. She was so respected in Samoa that the chief of the island adopted her into the royal family in recognition of her service.

When World War II broke out in the Pacific, Regina and her husband were living in Chefoo, China, where he was serving as U.S. consul, and they were interned by the Japanese. They were among the approximately 3,000 American citizens caught in the war zone. In May 1942, an agreement was made between the warring powers for the exchange of women and children and men over the age of 60 who were considered non-combatants for Japanese women, children, and elderly men. The exchange would take place at the port of Lourenco Marques, Portuguese East Africa.

On June 29, 1942, the Italian liner Conte Verde set sail from Shanghai, China with 924 North and South Americans aboard. Among them was Dr. Regina Flood Keyes Roberts. The trip from China to East Africa was expected to take three weeks but on July 10, Regina died. There was no cause of death in any of the newspaper reports that I found. She was simply reported as “stricken.” According to the inscription on a memorial stone in Woodlawn Cemetery, she was buried at sea at Lat. 5 degrees south, Long. 106 degrees 43 minutes east.

Memorial stone in Woodlawn Cemetery, 2019


  1. Wow what a story. What an amazing woman she was.

  2. What happened to her husband and where is he at rest?

    1. After the prisoner exchange, Quincy Roberts went on to serve as U.S. consul at Belfast, Northern Ireland. There he met and married his second wife in 1945. He served as consul general in Alexandria, Nice, and Monaco before retiring in 1953. He died on December 16, 1978 in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, England at the age of 85. (He was significantly younger than Regina when they got married!) I would guess that he was laid to rest there in England.

  3. Thanks for bringing this interesting woman to our attention.