Women Nurses in the Spanish-American War

Article excerpt

On April 25, 1898, Congress voted to go to war against Spain, and thus began America's entry into what would be known as the Spanish-American War.(1) In the great rush to volunteer, men crowded the Army recruiting offices. Women soon followed, seizing this opportunity to volunteer their services in an army where nursing had been done entirely by men since the end of the Civil War. That practice meant that hundreds of newly enlisted men had to be detailed for hospital duty to care for the sick. "No wonder that among so many some proved absolutely useless in performing the trying duties of an Army nurse."(2) The 520 hospital corpsmen with all degrees of nursing training as well as one hundred hospital stewards and 103 acting stewards were hardly adequate for a standing army of twenty-five thousand men, even in peacetime.(3) Moreover, while it was clear that these men could meet medical needs in the field, it was felt that the skilled assistance of trained women nurses would be an asset in the hospitals.

Controversy, however, raged regarding the use of women nurses--much as it had during the Civil War. Fortunately, the Surgeon General, George M. Sternberg, was a farsighted man. Upon President McKinley's call for more soldiers, he realized that trained women nurses would be needed in the Army's medical department. Although he was reluctant to have women serve in the camps, he saw the need for them in the hospitals. It was the opinion of the War Department that only a few women nurses would be needed and that their services would be limited to the general hospitals.

But the War Department was wrong. The demand for trained nurses grew suddenly owing to medical problems in the national camps and the continuing need as the sick and wounded returned from Cuba and Puerto Rico. One surgeon commented:

   Thousands have died from wounds and disease. Yellow Fever, dysentery,
   malaria and typhoid fever have been and continue to be our most formidable
   enemies. We had no great difficulty in silencing the Spanish guns, but we
   have been less effective in preventing the origin and spread of these, the
   greatest terrors of camp life ... The outbreak and spread of typhoid fever
   on our home camps, so early during the campaign, is responsible for more
   deaths and suffering than any other cause.(4)

To care for the growing number of soldiers who fell ill at the start of the war, about one hundred nurses were immediately hired without screening, since there was yet no process in place for examining their credentials. They were sent directly to certain of the largest camps where the chief surgeons were given authority to employ help without approval from Washington. Some of these nurses were not graduates or were aides without training. About thirty-two "immunes," women who had had yellow fever, and generally at least some experience in nursing, were selected by an agent in the South for temporary service in Cuba. "The majority of this group were colored women without hospital training."(5)

The Contributions of Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee

In the meantime, the Surgeon General's office was being flooded with applications from nurses all over the country. The pool to choose from was enormous, but the task of careful selection was overwhelming. At this juncture, Sternberg turned to Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee for assistance, and she urged him to hire only the most competent nurses. While there is no doubt that her primary goal was to help sick and wounded soldiers, McGee also hoped to advance the professional status of women nurses. She suggested that the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) act as an examining board for women who wished to volunteer their services. Both Surgeon Generals of the Army and Navy promptly accepted this offer, and the "D. A. R. Hospital Corps" was organized with McGee as chairperson.

In April of 1898, Congress authorized the Surgeon General to employ nurses under contract and to make appropriation for their payment at the rate of thirty dollars a month and a daily ration. …