White Paper_ Women in World War I -- The New Professional

Nursing in the Late 19th Century

This is an excerpt from Women in World War I – The New Professional. This white paper explores the rapid changes needed to get America ready for its role in World War I and the work needed to get a well-trained nursing corp in place immediately by building upon the nursing practices coming out of the 19th century.

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Nursing in the Late 19th Century

In 1875, Godey’s Lady’s Book reviewed the publication entitled “Hand-book for Hospital Sisters” written by Miss Florence Lees. While formally edited by a male physician, Miss Lees’ practical experience and nursing authority was noted as coming from years of experience in military hospitals across Europe, specifically Denmark, Germany, and France. In Britain, following the ground-breaking initiatives by Florence Nightingale, Lees trained nurses at both Kings College Hospital and St. Johns House. Echoing the words of the male editor who oversaw Lees’ work, Godey’s reviewer noted that her Hand-book is “not more remarkable for its high tone and elevated standard of duty than for the care and precision with which it treats of the many small matters that may be made contributory to the comfort and well-being of the sick. No nurse, however skilful, could read it without profit; and it should be not only in the hands of every probationer, sister, and superintendent, but also in those of every lady who takes personal interest in the nursing arrangements of the hospitals to which she may be a contributor.”  The formal training process for nurses in Britain at the time took approximately two years, but the reviewer noted that similar training programs were currently being introduced for nurses in the United States and suggested that Miss Lees’ work might be useful in their formation.

Clara Barton’s formation of the American chapter of the International Red Cross in 1881 fueled further awareness of the need for trained personnel for dealing with medical emergencies following natural disasters. However, there remained significant hesitation over women serving as nurses in military settings. Prior to 1901 and the reorganization of the military, including the formation of the Army Nurses Corps, the Surgeon General of the time had expressed concern over a perceived need to provide women with such niceties as rocking chairs (Highlights in the History of the Army Nurses Corps, C. Fellar and C. Moore, U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1995, page 6). However, such hesitations were overridden. Rather than having contract nurses supplied by such entities as the Daughters of the American Revolution or the American Red Cross, the creation of the Army Nurses Corps meant that nursing staff would be made answerable to military needs and authority.

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