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Women in Military Conflicts - Doctors, Nurses and others

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Women in Military Conflicts - Doctors, Nurses and others

The object of this project is to assemble profiles of women who played a roll in Military conflicts - mainly Doctors and Nurses - who were involved in wars up to and including World War II.

Early records indicate that nursing was originally conducted by monks and nuns of various religious orders. It was considered to be work of a spiritual nature as well as a physical one. Monks and other religious/military orders accompanied the soldiers of the crusades to the holy land.

During The Crusades (1090 AD) a military order was established that was known as the Knights Hospitaller. They provided care for sick, injured and poor pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem. This is probably the first know instance of military nursing as the order was considered to be a military order of the church. They provided care for sick, injured and poor pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem. This is probably the first know instance of military nursing as the order was considered to be a military order of the church.

Over time the profession of nursing evolved and became the province of "drunks, harlots and other women of ill repute". This was the state of nursing during the mid 1800's. Several significant changes occurred during this time and nursing evolved into a well respected profession. All of this would not have come to pass if it were not for the efforts of many nurses who took up the torch and carried it.

During the American Revolution (1775-1783) women served on the battlefield as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs.

War of 1812: Mary Marshall and Mary Allen nursed aboard Commodore Stephen Decatur's ship United States.

Mexican War (1846-1848): Elizabeth Newcom enlisted in Company D of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry as Bill Newcom. She marched 600 miles from Missouri to winter camp at Pueblo, Colorado, before she is discovered to be a woman and discharged.

By 1854 the Crimean War had started and Sidney Herbert to lead the women in tending the wounds of the injured soldiers. Appalled by the lack of fresh air, proper food and sanitation she became a driving force behind modernizing nursing and military nursing in particular. What made her particularly effective was that she was well educated, dedicated and she was able to convey her message to the political establishment of Great Britain. The second UK military hospital The Royal Herbert was named after Sidney Herbert.

Florence Nightingale also influenced American Nursing. Many of her concepts and nursing methods were used by nurses who volunteered for both the Union and the Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Women provided casualty care and nursing to Union and Confederate troops at field hospitals and on the Union Hospital Ship Red Rover. Women soldiers on both sides disguised themselves as men in order to serve. In 1866, Dr. Mary Walker received the Medal of Honor. She is the only woman to receive the nation's highest military honor. Over 5000 nurses served in the U.S. Civil War.

Dorothea Dix rose to prominence championing the humane treatment of the mentally ill. 1840-54. She later went on to become the first Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. She often clashed with the medical department over the treatment of soldiers and patients. One of the hallmarks of her tenure was her insistence that wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict be treated with the same compassion, dignity and nursing care.

In 1866 provision was made for the appointment of nurses to all British Military General Hospitals, but it was not until 1881 that an Army Nursing service was formed. Meanwhile, several sisters of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps were sent to the First Boer War (often called Zulu War) from 1879 to 1881, later to the Egyptian Campaign in 1882 and the Sudan War of 1883 to 1884. During the Sudan War members of the Army Nursing Service nursed in hospital ships on the Nile as well as the Citadel in Cairo. It is thought that the first white women to go up the Nile were army nurses (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).

During the British colonial rule in India the India Office paid more attention to the medical and nursing needs of soldiers. Miss Ada Hind who had experience as a Sister in Charge at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Suez, Egypt was asked to form the Indian Army Nursing Service but declined because of her own ill health. Instead two nursing sisters Miss Loch and Miss Oxley were chosen by the India Office to supervise and train nurses in the military hospitals in India and to work with the men of the Army Hospital Corps (cited in the book Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Famous Regts. S) by Juliet Piggott).

Miss Loch and Miss Oxley became Nursing Superintendents, or more correctly their title being Lady Superintendent, and took eight nursing sisters from Britain to India in 1888 to form the Indian Army Nursing Service (IANS).

By 1883 every British military hospital of 100 beds or more had a staff of Sisters. In 1897 Princess Christian's Army Nursing Service Reserve was formed. In the South African War, 1899, 80 of the 1,400 nurses sent were supplied by Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Clara Barton is significant in military nursing history because of her efforts during and after the U.S. Civil war to find missing Union soldiers. In 1881 she formed the American Red Cross and served as the president of that organization until 1904. The American Red Cross began its primary mission as a disaster relief society. At the onset of the Spanish-American War the focus became refugee, disaster and seeing to the humane treatment of prisoners of war (POW's).

The Spanish-American War (1898) Thousands of US soldiers sick with typhoid, malaria and yellow fever, overwhelmed the capabilities of the Army Medical Department. Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee suggested to the Army Surgeon General that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) be appointed to select professionally qualified nurses to serve under contract to the US Army. Before the war ended, 1,500 civilian contract nurses were assigned to Army hospitals in the US, Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, as well as to the Hospital Ship Relief. Twenty nurses died. The Army appointed Dr. McGee Acting Assistant Surgeon General, making her the first woman ever to hold the position. The Army was impressed by the performance of its contract nurses and asked Dr. McGee to write legislation creating a permanent corps of nurses.

During the second Boer War, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 the British Army Nursing Service was mobilised to tend the wounded in tented field hospitals in areas like Chiveley, Frere, Natal, Pietermaritzburg and Wynburg. As this second Zulu War progressed local buildings were commandeered and converted into hospitals such as No 3 general Hospital at Kroonstad. Sisters of the Army Nursing Service also nursed aboard troop ambulance trains and hospital ships.

Conditions were harsh for the nurses and 23 Army Nursing Sisters died from diseases despite their hard work at maintaining hygiene and order. Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War by Anne Powell cites that almost 2000 trained nurses served in the war.

The Army Nurse Corps was officially formed in 1901. The early commissions were not considered part of the regular army and nurses were awarded "equivalent rank" in the nurse corps. This led to much confusion about the authority of the nurses to instruct and give orders to other medical personnel especially corpsmen (medics) who worked closely with the nurses.

The U.S. Navy formed the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908.

World War I (1914-1918) saw increased use of women in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. The ranks were still not considered to be "in the chain of command". By the end of WWI it is estimated that over 30,000 women had served in the military. Many of them as nurses. During the course of the war, 21,480 American Army nurses served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. Eighteen African-American Army nurses serve stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. More than 1,476 U.S Navy nurses served in military hospitals stateside and overseas. More than 400 American military nurses died in the line of duty during World War I. The vast majority of these women died from a highly contagious form of influenza known as the "Spanish Flu," which swept through crowded military camps and hospitals and ports of embarkation.

Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Nurses

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was a voluntary unit providing field nursing services, mainly in hospitals, in the United Kingdom and various other countries in the British Empire. The most important periods of operation for these units were during World War I and World War II.

It was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St. John. By the summer of 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD members in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls.

Katharine Furse took two VADs to France in October 1914, restricting them to serve as canteen workers and cooks. Caught under fire in a sudden battle the VADs were pressed into emergency hospital service and acquitted themselves well. The growing shortage of trained nurses opened the door for VADs in overseas military hospitals. Furse was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the detachments and restrictions were removed. Female volunteers over the age of twenty-three and with more than three months' hospital experience were accepted for overseas service.

During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. VADs served near the Western Front and in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. VADs were later also sent to the Eastern Front. They provided an invaluable source of bedside aid in the war effort. Many were decorated for distinguished service.

Famous VAD nurses

  • Enid Bagnold, British author of the novel National Velvet, on which the 1944 film with Elizabeth Taylor was based. Her account of her experiences are related in her memoir A Diary Without Dates published in 1918.
  • Mary Borden, Anglo-American novelist
  • Vera Brittain, British author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I
  • Agatha Christie, British author who briefly details her VAD experiences in her posthumously published Autobiography
  • E.M. Delafield, British author of the "Diary of a Provincial Lady" series and some 30 other novels; her experiences working at the Exeter Voluntary Aid Hospital provided her with material for one of her most popular novels, The War Workers, published in 1918
  • Amelia Earhart, American aviation pioneer
  • Hattie Jacques, English comedy actress
  • Violet Jessop, British ocean liner stewardess trained as a VAD nurse after the outbreak of World War I. She had been a stewardess aboard the RMS Titanic when it sank in 1912 and was also aboard the hospital ship HMHS Britannic (the Titanic's sister ship) as a Red Cross nurse when it sank in 1916.
  • Naomi Mitchison, Scottish writer
  • Olivia Robertson, British author and co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis
  • Freya Stark, explorer and travel writer.
  • May Wedderburn Cannan, British poet
  • Anna Zinkeisen, Scottish painter and illustrator
  • Doris Zinkeisen, Scottish painter, commercial artist and theatrical designer
  • Jessie Traill, Australian painter

WW1 Further Reading

World War II (1940-1945)

...saw nurses serving in over 6 major theatres and all around the world. By this time nurses were starting to be accorded rank in accordance with the same (or nearly the same) standards as those for male applicants to the officer corps. The Army Nurse Corps (ANC) had fewer than 1000 nurses at the beginning of WWII. By the end of WWII the ANC had over 59,000 nurses in the corps.

More than 60,000 American Army nurses served stateside and overseas during World War II. Sixty-seven Army nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as POWs for over two and a half years. The Army established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, which was converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. More than 14,000 American Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships and as flight nurses during the war. Five Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged. A second group of eleven Navy nurses were captured in the Philippines and held for 37 months.

WW2 Further Reading

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Women Doctors, Nurses and others who served in Military Conflicts














  • Josephine Mazurkewicz (1784–1896) was the last female veteran. She was an assistant surgeon in Napoleon's army and later participated in the Crimean War.












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