On the Front Lines

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, two Navy Nurses requested discharges and joined the Red Cross. There they served in the war zone, helping treat men who were injured in battles.

The women would spend a year on the front lines. In 1915, both returned to the United States and reenlisted in the Navy. Their experience was important, because it would help shape the role of women when the U.S. entered the “Great War” two years later, in 1917.

This photograph at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Norfolk, circa 1914, comes from the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Expanding the Nursing Corps

The group of nurses gradually grew from the “sacred 20,” the first group making up the Navy Nurse Corps. By the end of 1909, 37 nurses where in the Navy, scattered at stations across the continental United States.

Demand increased, and the Corps grew. By 1913, there were approximately 160 Navy Nurse Corp members. They were assigned to U.S. hospitals, but also to locations in Pearl Harbor (then a U.S. territory), the Philippine Islands, Guam, Samoa, Japan, Cuba and the Virgin Islands. For a brief time in 1913, Navy nurses served aboard ships: the USS Mayflower and the USS Dolphin.

This photograph at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, circa 1914, comes from the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The First Navy Nurses

It wasn’t until 1908 that Congress allowed women to serve in the Navy – as nurses. On May 13th of that year, the Navy Nurse Corps was established.

Women had to have at least two years formal training as “graduate nurses” and also have relevant clinical experience to qualify.

Nineteen women were part of the first nurse contingent,. A 20th, Esther Vorhees Hasson, was a former Army nurse who was tapped to lead the women in the Navy Nurse Corps.

This photograph of the “sacred 20” comes from the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Spanish-American War

The Spanish American War would mark the first time non-religious female contract nurses would be hired by the Navy to serve ashore.The Army, meanwhile, hired women nurses to serve aboard ship on the Relief.

The use of women as nurses during wartime, both the Civil War and Spanish-America War, would lead to the establishment of nursing as a real profession requiring formal training — a profession both open to and dominated by women. It would also lead to the establishment of a formal female nursing corps within the military.

This image is of contract nurses serving in Cuban waters aboard the Army ship Relief. It comes from the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Mother Angela

Eighty Sisters of the Holy Cross served the Navy as nurses aboard the USS Red Rover during the Civil War. The Red Rover was a hospital ship based in the Mississippi River.

They were supervised by Mother Angela Gillespie, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

This engraving of Mother Angela comes from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Aboard the Red Rover

During the Civil War, the the USS Red Rover. a hospital ship based in the Mississippi River, became the first Navy vessel to have women on board. The Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross served as nurses aboard the ship.

This engraving from Harper’s Bazaar shows  a sister nurse attending a patient bedside in one of the wards. It comes from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The First Shipboard Women

By the Civil War, the U.S. Navy realized that it would need help from women. And since nursing was an accepted profession for women, the Navy decided that women could serve aboard ships as an experiment.

But not just any women. Nuns. Specifically the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross, who served in aboard the pioneer Naval hospital ship the USS Red Rover.  The ship was based in the Mississippi River.

This engraving from Harper’s Bazaar shows at left a sister nurse attending a patient bedside. It comes from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.