The History of Wartime Nurses

Today, nurses in the United States are required to have a nursing degree, but that wasn’t always the case. Women have a long history of serving as nurses to soldiers in the military. In the earliest days of American history, nurses were untrained. Many of them were women who couldn’t eke out a living with their men off to war, so they followed the troops and made themselves useful where they could to earn safety, food, and lodging. Later, the important role that nurses played during wartime was recognized and training programs were established. Today, nurses serve in all branches of the military.

Revolutionary War (1775-83)

During the Revolutionary War, women often followed the troops hoping for safety, food, and a chance to work. Some of those women worked as nurses. They were valued because of the traditional role women had as caretakers but also because if a woman was doing the nursing, that meant there was one more man available to fight. On July 27, 1775, a resolution was signed allotting payment of two dollars per month to women who worked as nurses. Women who supervised the nurses and acted as go-betweens to the surgeons received four dollars. The worth of female nurses was apparently recognized since the pay per nurse was raised to four dollars in 1776. The signing of this resolution was significant because it created the first organized system for the assignment and payment of nurses for the American military.

  • Women’s Service: Colonial Williamsburg presents a history of women’s service to the Revolutionary army.
  • Women’s Roles: Read an examination of the various roles women played during the American Revolutionary War here.
  • The Early Years: Find out what women were doing for the war effort before they were recognized as nurses.
  • The American Revolutionary War: This article presents an overview of the war and its major events.

Civil War (1861-65) and After

When the Civil War broke out, there was no organized training system in place for nurses in America, which means there was still no such thing as a nursing degree. However, the groundwork had been laid in Europe through the work of Florence Nightingale. That doesn’t mean, though, that women did not play a significant role during the Civil War. They served as nurses in Union and Confederate hospitals. Many also worked closer to the battlefield. On June 10, 1861, Dorothea Lynde was named “superintendent of women nurses,” which created an organized unit of nurses for the Union.

  • A Nurse’s Diary: Amanda Akin, a nurse during the Civil War, kept a diary of her experiences. Explore this virtual exhibit from the Smithsonian.
  • Clara Barton: Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross and the most famous Civil War nurse.
  • Historical Pictures: View photographs from the Civil War era and read an article about the history of Civil War nurses.
  • African-American Nurses in the Civil War: Many African-Americans served as nurses during the war, including Anne Bradford Stokes, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.
  • Evolution of Medicine (video): The National Museum of Civil War Medicine presents a lecture on the advances in medicine during the war, including medical artifacts.

Spanish-American War (1898) and Beyond

Between the time of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, mainly men filled the role of military nurses. But as the war approached, the military began to realize that the scant number of male nurses who served in peacetime would not be enough to manage the needs during a war. In April of 1898, the surgeon general authorized the appointment of nurses who would serve under contract to the military. The authorization did not specify a required gender, so women applied. Most of them were untrained, though, and the surgeon general’s office did not have the necessary resources to examine their qualifications. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) offered to serve as the examining board for nurses who wished to work for the government, and the standard for being appointed as a nurse for the government was set at having graduated from a training school and having recommendations from suitable sources. In a sense, this was an early form of the modern nursing degree.

  • Spanish-American War Nurses Monument: See pictures of the monument dedicated to the women who served during the Spanish-American War.
  • Black Women in the Military: Learn how black women contributed as nurses during the Spanish-American War as well as how they have served throughout history.
  • Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee: Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee was a key figure in the organization of nurses during the war and was the acting assistant surgeon general.
  • Dita H. Kinney: Dita Kinney was the first superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps.
  • Army Nurse Corps: View historical photographs of nurses during the Spanish-American War.

World War I (1917-18) and After

The American Red Cross signed up in excess of 22,000 nurses during World War I. Almost half of them worked on the Western Front. Some of them also worked with the British and French armies serving in American units. Unfortunately, African-American nurses and immigrant nurses were not allowed to serve overseas at the time. Initially, military leaders sought to keep the nurses safe by keeping them as far away from the battlefront as possible. However, they eventually realized that more lives could be saved if the nurses were readily available to treat wounds at the front. After the war, there was a movement to assign ranks to the nurses. This happened because their authority was often not recognized since they were not commissioned. In 1920, an agreement was made to assign nurses “relative ranks” as majors, captains, and lieutenants.

World War II (1942-45)

World War II saw the service of 59,000 or more American nurses. Only 1,000 nurses were listed on the rolls of the Army Nurse Corps at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but following the attack, the rolls grew to 12,000. Nurses were called to serve even closer to the battlefield than they had before, even serving under fire. Thanks to the skill and dedication of the nurses, the U.S. military had an astonishingly low rate of death following injury. Less than four percent of soldiers who were treated in the field following an injury later died as a result of wounds or disease.

Post-World War II (1947-50)

One year after the end of World War II, there were only about 8,500 nurses remaining in the Army Nurse Corps. On April 16, 1947, Congress established the Army Nurse Corps as part of the Medical Department of the Army and authorized having no fewer than 2,558 nurses on staff. Nurses of the Army Nurse Corps were also given the right to hold permanent commissioned officer status, which means those who had a relative rank and were still on active duty were assigned a permanent rank, but they served under their previous rank if the new rank was higher. Specialized courses for nurses began to appear on the scene, such as courses in anesthesiology and operating room technique.

Korean War (1950-53)

Just as they did during World War II, nurses in the Korean War served on the battlefield, tending the wounds of the soldiers. They staffed mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units and hospitals in both Korea and Japan. At the start of the Korean War, there were 22,000 women in the military; about 7,000 were medical professionals.

  • The Korean War: A brief description of the background of the Korean War and MASH units can be found here.
  • Memories of MASH: This article from The Chicago Tribune offers insight into what it was like to be a doctor working in a MASH unit during the Korean War.
  • Nurse Casualties: The National Archive explains how it came to the conclusion that there were no female nurses killed during the Korean War.
  • The Korean War: Not Forgotten: The Library of Congress is collecting stories from veterans of the Korean War. Find out more about the project here.
  • NSC-68 and the Korean War: From the historian of the State Department, learn more about the history of the Korean War.

Vietnam War (1965-72)

During the Vietnam War, many nurses were deployed to Southeast Asia. They worked at all of the major Army hospitals in the area. Because men were allowed into the Army Nurse Corps beginning in 1955, Vietnam was the first war in which there was a major deployment of male nurses. They were sent to areas that were considered too dangerous for female nurses. Due to the unprecedented style of the conflict, nurses were in greater danger than ever before, and several nurses died in Vietnam.

About Duquesne University

Duquesne University, with its long tradition of academic excellence and community service, is a widely recognized pioneer in online graduate nursing education. Our students and faculty are passionate about advancing the practice of nursing and serious about making a difference in the world. And now you can join them.

Earning your nursing degree online with Duquesne means that you’ll benefit from individual attention and unmatched support. Once you’re accepted into one of our online nursing programs, you’ll be assigned a faculty mentor who will assist you in the completion of a program plan. Learn more about the online nursing programs offered by Duquesne University.