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A Brief History of Female Nurses in the Military, from the American Revolution to World War II (PHOTOS)

Posted: 05/07/2013 7:35 am

Cate Lineberry is the author of THE SECRET RESCUE: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines ($27, Little, Brown)

For nearly four decades, the United States has honored its nurses with National Nurses Week, held between May 6 and May 12 -- the birthday of celebrated British nurse Florence Nightingale. Considered the pioneer of modern nursing, Nightingale first garnered fame after she and her team of nurses reduced the death rate at a British base hospital by two-thirds during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The contributions of female nurses to the American military, however, reach as far back as the American Revolution when women cared for the fallen on battlefields and in camps. In the summer of 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates of the Continental Army reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that, "the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses." Gen. Washington asked for help from Congress, which approved one nurse for every ten patients in Continental hospitals.

The U.S. military officially added contract nurses for the first time soon after the Spanish-American war broke out in 1898 to help care for the overwhelming numbers of sick as well as the injured. More than 1,500 nurses served, including 250 nuns, 80 African-American nurses, and at least four Native Americans. Twenty-one of these women died after contracting illnesses from those in their care.

Acknowledging these nurses' invaluable contributions in saving lives and hoping to avoid panic the next time war broke out, the Surgeon General established the criteria for a reserve force of nurses in 1899, and in 1901, Congress established the Army Nurse Corps. Seven years later, it created the Navy Nurse Corps.

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, it had 403 Army nurses and 160 Navy nurses on active duty. By the end of the war, more than 22,000 nurses had served in the military--with several decorated for their actions. Several hundred lost their lives while in service, including many who became victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918.

After the U.S. entered World War II, the American National Red Cross put out a nationwide call for 50,000 nurses to join the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose four sons were serving in the military, pleaded in an editorial in the American Journal of Nursing in 1942 for young women to join.

"I ask for my boys what every mother has the right to ask -- that they be given full and adequate nursing care should the time come when they need it. Only you nurses who have not yet volunteered can give it.... You must not forget that you have in your power to bring back some who otherwise surely will not return."

Some 74,000 nurses served, including dozens who became Japanese prisoners of war and others who found themselves behind enemy lines or in the middle of combat.

Despite the risks these women endured, it wasn't until 1947 that nurses in the Army and Navy Corps were finally granted permanent commissioned officer status, which allowed them to receive the full rights, privileges, and pay that came with their rank.

See historical photos of military nurses:

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  • Annie Bell (1864)

    During the Civil War, women, like Annie Bell who nursed soldiers after the Battle of Nashville in 1864, tended to troops without any formal training and often despite resistance from male colleagues. Though some women volunteered through relief organizations, more than three thousand nurses, including African-American women who were former slaves, served under Dorothea Dix, the first Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army. <em>Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Army Center of Military History</em>

  • U.S. Army Hospital Ship 'Relief' (1898)

    Soon after the Spanish-American War broke out in April 1898, Congress approved the Surgeon General’s request for contract nurses, including those who served on the hospital ship Relief. As in previous wars, more men died from disease than wounds from the enemy, and the country was unprepared to handle the overwhelming number of soldiers suffering from illness. The nurses were eventually selected by Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, Vice President of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Between l898 and l90l, more than l,500 women served the military. <em>Credit: Courtesy of Naval History & Heritage Command Collection, NH 92846</em>

  • First Reserve Hospital in Manila, Philippines (circa 1900)

    Nurses were at great risk from getting sick from their patients, including those who served in operating rooms, iat the First Reserve Hospital in Manila, Philippines. During this time, fifteen nurses died from typhoid fever and one from yellow fever. Some of these heroic women are buried near the Spanish-American Nurses War Monument in the Nurses section at Arlington National Cemetery. <em>Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Army Medical Department</em>

  • First Navy Nurses (1908)

    A year after Congress established the all-female Army Nurse Corps in 1901, the Navy's Surgeon-General proposed a similar Navy Nurse Corps. In 1907, still seeking approval, he reported to Congress that, "The Government supplies physicians and surgeons, splendidly equipped hospitals, and complete emergency facilities on every ship. The most serious omission in this excellent establishment is the want of that skilled nursing which civil institutions enjoy.” In May 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps was approved, and the first twenty Navy nurses were appointed. This photo of the group, known as the Sacred Twenty, was taken at the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C., around October 1908. <em>Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center, NH 52960</em>

  • WWI Base Hospital, Haute Marne, France

    To help meet the demand for nurses during World War I, Vassar College started the Vassar Training Camp for Nurses in 1918, which prepared college graduates in a three-month intensive training program to complete nursing school in two years instead of three. In its recruitment pamphlet, the camp warned that only those committed should apply, "We shall assume at the outset that you are not simply a dabbler or a sentimental dreamer, but a serious, practical, patriotic girl or woman sincerely anxious to throw your energies and your abilities into some form of work that is really going to count." During its first summer, the camp included faculty from Harvard, New York University, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia as well as students from 41 states and more than a hundred educational institutes. Other universities soon offered similar programs, while the Army created its own three-year School of Nursing at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C. By the end of the war, more than 22,000 nurses, including women working in the operating room at Base Hospital #52 in Haute Marne, France, had served in the military. <em>Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Army Medical Department </em>

  • Stranded Flight Nurses, WWII

    The nurses who remained in the military after World War I lobbied for full military status, arguing that they too had risked their lives for their country and deserved the benefits and authority that came with rank. In 1920, the Army Reorganization Act awarded Army nurses relative rank in the grades of Second Lieutenant to Major. Though it gave nurses the status of officers and allowed them to wear the insignia of their ranks, nurses’ pay was about half that of male officers of the same rank. It wasn’t until June 1944, more than two years after America entered World War II and months after stranded Army Air Forces flight nurses returned from walking more than 600 miles behind Nazi lines, that the Army granted nurses temporary officers’ commissions with equal pay, retirement benefits, and dependents’ allowances. <em>Credit: 15th Air Force [USAAF] photo courtesy of Air Force Historical Research Agency, Roll A6544</em>

  • African-American nurses, WWII (1944)

    Despite elaborate efforts to add nurses to its ranks during World War II, including a government-subsidized program that prepared nurses as quickly as possible for duty, the Army Nurse Corps was reluctant to add African-American nurses. Though they had served in the Civil War and 18 had joined the Army Nurse Corps during the nursing shortage in World War I, segregation and discrimination kept the number of African-American nurses to a minimum. Out of 59,000 Army nurses, only an estimated 600 African-American were allowed to serve, including nurses who prepared to land in Greenock, Scotland, in August 1944. The Navy Nurse Corps didn’t accept its first African-American nurse, Phyllis Mae Dailey, until March 1945. By the time the war ended, only four were on active duty. <em>Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Army Medical Department</em>

  • POW nurses (1945)

    The dangers faced by military nurses serving overseas were quickly realized within months of the United States entering the war. In the spring of 1942 dozens of American nurses became Japanese prisoners of war as Bataan and Corregidor fell in the Philippines. Though they remained POWs under horrific conditions for three years and suffered their own injuries and illnesses, they continued to care for soldiers in the camp until they were freed in February 1945. In November 1942, 60 unarmed Army nurses found themselves in the thick of combat with troops on beaches during the invasion of North Africa. It was the Allies first amphibious landing in the Mediterranean, and they had expected minimal resistance. Loaded with full packs and wearing helmets, the nurses ducked from sniper fire as they waded to the shore from assault boats. The service and heroism of all the women who served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps was finally recognized in 1947 when the temporary officer status granted to them during the war was made permanent. <em>Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History</em>