In 1908, US Congress established the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Up until this time, women nurses had been working unofficially on Navy ships and in Navy hospitals.
The concept of women being formally added to Navy hospital staff was first introduced by Dr. William Barton in 1811. But the official service of women as nurses would not be established until much later – in 1908 with the formation of the Nurse Corps. At that time, 20 women were chosen and assigned to the Naval Medical School Hospital in Washington, DC. This first group, however, had to provide their own room and board.
WWI and the Nurse Corps
Just prior to WWI, the Nurse Corps had already grown to 160 nurses. With the onset of WWI, the duties of the Nurse Corps were greatly expanded, including overseas service and working under difficult battle field conditions while on loan to the US Army. In all, 19 female nurses lost their life during this time – more than half of them dying from influenza.
World War II
The World War II era saw a great influx in the number of nurses in the Nurse Corps. In November of 1941, close to 800 were on active duty, with an additional 900+ on reserve (inactive status).
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Navy nurses were on duty throughout the Pacific and played a vital role in minimizing the overall loss of life and limb. The need to place them under the War Manpower Commission became apparent and, despite the shortage of qualified nurses, the Navy upheld its standards and enrolled those nurses with outstanding credentials and exceptional skills. The nurses selected received further training in specialty areas such as orthopedics, surgery and psychiatry. The Navy nurses were also responsible for training Hospital Corpsmen.
The Navy nurses participated in WWII throughout the Pacific theater and in Europe, as well as stateside. Some were assigned to naval hospitals aboard ships and were eventually given permission to travel off ship to pick up the wounded. By the mid-1940s, flight nurses were graduating after additional training in swimming and rescue missions. Upon graduation, they became an active member of a flying team.
By the end of the war, over 10,000 nurses were serving over six continents. After WWII, the US Navy Nurse Corps played important roles in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The US Navy Nurse Corps, far removed from the worn torn battlefields of WWII, remain active to this day with nurses deployed throughout the world.