The history of the United States Navy Nurse Corps reaches back almost to the establishment of the Navy itself. Although the designation of “Nurse” was not created until 1861 with the issuance of a Navy Department order (it was disestablished in 1884), the idea of employing nurses—female nurses, to be precise—goes back to 1812 and a Naval Surgeon named William P.C. Barton.
After Congress passed an act in 1811 establishing Naval hospitals, the Secretary of the Navy requested that Barton create regulations for their operation. Barton’s rules, submitted to Congress the next year, include a list of staff that each hospital housing at least one hundred men should have. Included in the list was a Matron and four nurses; though Barton didn’t specify if the nurses should be male or female, the gender of the Matron was not left in doubt when he suggested that in the best of all worlds, the optimal choice for that position would be the steward’s wife.
Barton expanded upon these concepts in 1814 in A Treatise Containing a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals. In it, he not only gave a list of characteristics the Matron should possess (“discreet,” “capable,” “reputable,” and “neat” were a few he listed), but also described nurses as “women of humane dispositions,” thus settling the debate on where he stood on the issue of females serving in this caretaking capacity.
Two years earlier, famed Navy commander Stephen Decatur made female nurses a de facto position by bringing along two women as “nurses;” both were crewmen’s wives with no medical training, and were listed in the May 10, 1813 entry in the ship’s log as “supernumeraries.”
After a Federal gunboat captured the Confederate sidewheel steamer Red Rover in April of 1862, it was outfitted as the Navy’s first hospital ship. Among its first patients were victims of an explosion aboard the gunboat Mound City. The wounded were taken to the hospital at Mound City, where a nurse named Sister Athanasius volunteered to serve as nurse aboard the Red Rover through the end of the summer. In addition, Mother M. Angela and five other nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Cross had arrived in Mound City earlier, and she offered to provide the Navy with nurses.
When the Red Rover was officially commissioned on December 26, 1862, four nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Cross (Sister Athanasius’ order) were onboard; they were later joined by another nun. Five African-American women—Ellen Campbell, Dennis Downs, Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, and Betsy Young—assisted the nuns. Before the ship was decommissioned on November 17, 1865, it had carried almost 2500 Union and Confederate wounded and sick to shore hospitals.
On the 13th of May, 1908, President William Taft signed a bill that established the Navy Nurse Corps, consisting of just twenty women: a superintendent, a chief nurse, and eighteen nurses. By the time the U.S. entered World War I, the Corps had grown to 406; before the war ended, that number grew to more than 1700 who served in Europe, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Haiti, the Virgin Islands, and stateside. Of these, 36 died, three of whom were posthumousely awarded the Navy Cross for the service they gave during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.