Shortly after establishment of the Continental Army, June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Washington then asked Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.”
In July 1775, a plan was submitted to the Second Continental Congress that provided one nurse for every 10 patients and provided “that a matron be allotted to every 100 sick or wounded.”
Many women served as nurses in the hospitals of both the Union and Confederate armies, also often performing their humanitarian service close to the fighting front or on the battlefields themselves – earning the undying respect and gratitude from those whom they served.
On June 10, 1861, two months after the Civil War began, the secretary of war appointed Dorothea Lynde Dix as superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army.
About 6,000 women performed nursing duties for the federal forces. It is estimated that some 181 black nurses served in convalescent and U.S. government hospitals during the war.
On April 28, 1898, at the onset of the Spanish-American War, the surgeon general requested and promptly received congressional authority to appoint women nurses under contract.
Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, vice president of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in charge of selecting graduate members for the Army. Military nursing had been almost dormant since the Civil War. This profession required a high level of competence and military nurses became known as “contract nurses” of the Army. Between 1898 and 1901, more than l,500 women nurses signed governmental contracts.
Contract nurses served in the United States, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, Hawaii, China, briefly in Japan and on the hospital ship Relief. Fifteen of these nurses died of typhoid fever and one of yellow fever.
The “Splendid Little War,” as Secretary of State John Hay once called it, exposed various shortcomings throughout the military structure, which in turn made the years after the turn of the century ripe for reform. Under the guidance of Secretary of War Elihu Root, a new chief of staff system was created, along with several other initiatives. During this time, mainly because of the exemplary performance of Army contract nurses during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military realized that it would be helpful to have a corps of trained nurses, familiar with military ways, on call.
The Nurse Corps became a permanent corps of the Medical Department under the Army Reorganization Act (31 Stat. 753) passed by Congress, Feb. 2, 1901. Nurses were appointed to the regular Army for a 3-year period, although nurses were not actually commissioned as officers in the regular Army during that period of time. The appointment could be renewed provided the applicant had a “satisfactory record for efficiency, conduct and health.”
The law directed the surgeon general to maintain a list of qualified nurses who were willing to serve in an emergency. Therefore, provision was made to appoint a certain number of nurses with at least six months of satisfactory service in the Army on a reserve status. This was the first Reserve Corps authorized in the Army Medical Department, and the first ever reserve corps of women.
Dita H.Kinney, a former contract nurse, was officially appointed the first Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, or ANC, March 25, 1901, a position she held until she resigned in July 1909.
The United States entered World War I, April 6, 1917. There were 403 nurses on active duty, including 170 reserve nurses who had been ordered to duty at 12 Army hospitals in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
By 1918, more than 12,000 nurses were on active duty serving at 198 stations worldwide. In May 1917, six base (general) hospitals with more than 400 nurses sailed for France for service in the British Expeditionary Forces.
Gen. John J. Pershing sent a cabled request “for a competent member of the Nurse Corps” to supervise nursing activities in the American Expeditionary Forces, Oct. 2, 1917. Bessie S. Bell, then chief nurse of Walter Reed General Hospital, reported to service, Nov. 13, 1917.
The Army School of Nursing was authorized by the secretary of war as an alternative to utilizing nurses’ aides in Army hospitals, May 25, 1918. Courses of instruction opened at several Army hospitals during July 1918. Annie W. Goodrich was appointed under contract as chief inspector nurse for the Army; she became the first dean of the Army School of Nursing.
Army nurses during World War I did not have officer status. They were not commissioned, but appointed into the ANC. Medics sometimes refused to accept nurses’ authority on the wards. After the war, Congress, to show their appreciation, gave nurses officer status by allotting them “relative rank,” meaning that an Army nurse first lieutenant, for example, received less pay and status than a male first lieutenant.
As a sign of their valiant contribution during the Great War, Army nurses were awarded numerous medals – including the Distinguished Service Cross (an award ranked second only to the Medal of Honor).
Several nurses received wartime wounds, but none died as a result of enemy action. Approximately 200 did perish from influenza and pneumonia.
Army nurses played a critical role in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918. It was (and remains) the single most deadly epidemic in modern times. An estimated 18 million people around the globe lost their lives as a result of having contracted the flu. People living and working in crowded Army posts, port towns, and urban areas were most susceptible to this highly contagious disease. More than 200 Army nurses lost their lives because they contracted influenza while nursing their patients on the wards.
There were fewer than 7,000 Army nurses on active duty when the United States entered World War II. Over the next six months, their number grew to more than 12,000.
Army nurses, like their male Soldier counterparts, were prisoners of war of the Japanese, sustained casualties from enemy fire at Anzio beachhead and elsewhere, were killed in flights and spent time behind enemy lines and in concentration camps.
The 80th Congress passed Public Law 36, which established the Regular Army Nurse Corps branch in the U.S. Army Medical Department, April 16, 1947. The act also established the Army Nurse Corps section of the Officer Reserve Corps, and allowed them in the Army National Guard and the Air Guard.
This legislation likewise put an end to relative rank and the full-but-temporary ranks granted during the middle of the war. The law also and granted military nurses permanent ranks and commissions in the regular and Reserves equal to the ranks of male officers.
Just like during World War II, Army nurses served in the combat theater very close to the extremely fluid front lines of the war. As a rule, they were the only military women allowed into the combat theater during this war. Nurses served in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH, field hospitals, hospital trains, and – during the early weeks of the war – on Army transport ships.
In April 1965, with the rapid buildup of American forces in Vietnam, Army nurses were dispatched with medical units to support the fighting forces. The 8th Field Hospital, Nha Trang, had been the only U.S. Army hospital in country for three years. The 3rd Field Hospital, Saigon, was the first to arrive during the buildup.
After the removal of restrictions on the careers of female officers, women of the Army Nurse Corps and the Women’s Army Corps were authorized promotion consideration under the same promotion procedures applicable to men in the regular Army, Nov. 8, 1967.
Col. Anna Mae Hays, 13th Chief of the ANC, was promoted to brigadier general, the first nurse in the history of the American military to attain flag rank, June 11, 1970. She and Brig. Gen. Elizabeth P. Hoisington, Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, director, were promoted on the same day.
Thousands of U.S. Army nurses served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. The largest number for any single year was 900 in 1969. Several were wounded and nine died while serving. One of those who died, 1st Lt. Sharon A. Lane, was a victim of hostile fire.
The last of more than 5,000 nurses departed from the Republic of Vietnam two months after the cease-fire, March 29, 1973. Lt. Col. Marion L. Minter was the last chief nurse in Vietnam.
As with WAC in the 1970s, many changes also took place within the Army Nurse Corps. In March 1976, the authorized Army Reserve troop program’s strength was increased from approximately 1,900 to more than 5,100 officers. In April 1976, the Division of Nursing at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research transferred to the Department of Nursing, Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
By March 1980, more than 3,666 of the Army nurses on active duty – approximately 95 percent – had a baccalaureate degree or higher in nursing or a related career field. There were nurses on active duty in the United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Panama, Japan, Okinawa, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Italy, and Belgium.