A History of Nursers During War Times

The first recorded history of nursing connects the profession with religion, with most nurses being either nuns or monks. During the Middle Ages in Europe, caring for the sick fell to the churches. Cathedrals and monasteries often had hospitals attached to them, staffed by the nuns and monks. Nurses cared for the ill and the injured in the hospitals, and they also traveled to remote areas to make house calls. As the centuries progressed, nursing evolved to become an independent profession. Throughout history and especially during times of war, nurses have provided crucial assistance in tending to the wounded and sick on the front lines and in hospitals as well as assisting with convalescent care in nursing homes. Nursing home abuse was not as prevalent during war time. 

American Revolutionary War (1775-83)

Up until the Revolutionary War, nursing services for soldiers were usually performed by other male soldiers. Gen. Horatio Gates requested that female nurses care for the wounded soldiers in his company. This prompted Gen. George Washington to petition Congress for nurses to care for soldiers. The eventual plan devised became the first organized nursing system used by the military. The plan allotted one nurse for every 10 patients and one matron to oversee the care of every 100 soldiers. Many women were destitute during the Revolutionary War, and nursing provided a means of earning both money and rations.

The Civil War (1861-65) and After

When the Civil War first began, untrained women volunteered as nurses. Eventually, Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix created a nursing corps that was responsible for training nurses and staffing the field hospitals. Barton was also the founder of the American Red Cross, which was instrumental in providing medical supplies and other necessities to the front lines and field hospitals. The Civil War era is generally recognized as the time during which nursing rose to become a recognized profession. Nursing schools opened within a decade of the end of the Civil War, accepting female students who wanted to train to become nurses.

Spanish-American War (1898) and Beyond

When the Spanish American War began in 1898, the Daughters of the American Revolution were instrumental in recruiting contract physicians and nurses. Tropical warfare presented special circumstances and problems, and the United States was not prepared. Estimates suggest that 1,563 contract nurses cared for soldiers during this conflict, which resulted in the loss of more lives from disease than from battle injuries. Records indicate that 21 contract nurses died from illnesses contracted during their service.

World War I 1917-18 and After

The Army Nurse Corps was created in 1901. When World War I began, 403 women were serving on active duty, but by the end of the war, 21,480 nurses had enlisted to serve. Nursing service was not without risk, and more than 200 nurses died during World War I. Nurses served in field hospitals, evacuation and mobile units, camps, and convalescent hospitals and on trains and ships. Nurses frequently experienced long hours, inclement weather, and water shortages.

World War II (1942-45)

Female nurses continued to serve as the backbone of the profession during World War II. The United States government even offered free nursing education for students during this conflict. World War II nurses received training in important areas such as field sanitation, anesthetic administration, and mental health. Nurses were needed on the front lines to care for the wounded, positioning them potentially in the line of fire.

Post-World War II (1947-50)

After World War II ended, nurses were eager to experience greater respect because of their significant involvement and contributions during the war. However, change was slow, which many nurses found discouraging. Many trained nurses even chose to leave the profession due to the lack of respect and recognition, which led to serious nursing shortages. The American Nurses Association assumed the position as the main nursing organization in the United States. The ANA worked to improve working conditions and pay for nurses.

Korean War (1950-53)

The Korean War took place between 1950 and 1953, with the United States providing the majority of the soldiers who fought in the conflict. During the Korean War, the first mobile Army surgical hospitals came into existence, which were instrumental in reducing fatalities. Many Army nurses worked in these MASH units, and some nurses worked on hospital ships and flew in helicopters.

Vietnam (1965-72)

The Army Nurse Corps was responsible for caring for American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The typical nurse serving during this conflict was around 23 years old and had less than two years of nursing experience. Army nurses serving in Vietnam had 12-month tours with a variety of duty assignments. Nurses often worked in makeshift hospitals and mobile units, experiencing difficult and dangerous conditions. Typical work shifts consisted of six-day weeks with 12-hour shifts.