Angels With The Lamp


On May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naval Appropriations Bill authorizing the establishment of the Nurse Corps as a unique staff corps in the Navy. Initially, all Nurse Corps candidates were required to travel to Washington, D.C., at their own expense and take an oral and written examination. Since many applicants expressed reluctance to travel at their own expense, U.S. Navy Surgeon General Presley Rixey ordered that applicants be allowed to submit an original essay on the topic of “nursing practices” by mail, in lieu of an onsite written examination.

The nucleus of this new Navy Nurse Corps was a superintendent Esther Hasson, a chief nurse Lenah Higbee, and 18 other women—all would forever be remembered as the “Sacred Twenty.” These “nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, D.C. There were no quarters for them but they were given an allowance for quarters and subsistence. They rented a house and ran their own mess.

In 1908, the Navy Medical Department was comprised of Medical Corps Officers and Hospital Corpsmen (then referred to as Hospital Stewards and Hospital Apprentices). Unlike their physician counterparts, the first nurses did not hold rank. Navy nurses were not granted “relative rank” until July 3, 1942. Nurse Corps officers were finally granted “full military rank” on February 26, 1944. See below.

Roles in Navy Medicine
Until 1909, all Navy nurses had the choice of one duty station, Naval Hospital Washington, D.C. (sometimes referred to as the Navy Medical School Hospital). In 1909, BUMED began detailing its Navy Nurse Corps to medical facilities outside of Washington, D.C. Naval Hospitals Annapolis, Md., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Mare Island, Calif., were among the first hospitals to receive nurses.

World War I
By the time the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, nearly 600 nurses were active duty between the two divisions. By the end of the war, more than 22,000 nurses had served, including several hundred who had paid the ultimate price of their lives. Many nurses were decorated for their bravery and actions such as Miss Jane I. Rignel, Miss Linnie Leckrone, and Miss Irene Robar, who received the Citation Star (later converted to the Silver Star Medal).

World War II.
World War II saw nearly 74,000 women serving as nurses across all areas of military campaigns, with the American Red Cross (founded by Civil War nurse Clara Barton) fielding most of the recruitment efforts. Many nurses ended up in direct combat zones or behind enemy lines caring for the ill and injured. Dozens of nurses were captured by the Japanese to become prisoners of war.

Changes to Rank
Nurses did not attain full commissioned officer status in the Navy Corps until 1947. All of the nurses, including the chief nurse, were enlisted servicewomen taking orders from the physician officers. The role of the chief nurse was an appointed position that was posted whenever two or more nurses were serving in a unit. This prominent promotion required the candidates to pass examinations that included testing in hygiene, math, and regulations. The chief nurse was responsible for overseeing the daily assignments and schedules of approximately 20 nurses living in military quarters.

Vietnam
The 1950s saw many changes to nurses in the military, as men were commissioned into the Nurse Corps. Nurses became entrenched in the Vietnam campaign and as the war progressed, the need for trauma and critical care nurses grew to new heights. The Nurse Corps came away from the Vietnam campaign with a renewed spirit to promote and expand the profession of nursing. Numerous educational programs were developed for advanced practice registered nursing. By 1976, in alignment with the American Nurses Association, all newly commissioned offers in the corps were required to possess a baccalaureate degree.

Operation Desert Storm/Shield
Most of the 1980s saw the Navy Nurse Corps aiding in humanitarian missions including earthquake victim relief around the globe and in the United States and caring for those affected by major hurricanes. Nurses serving on U.S. Naval hospital ships such as the USNS Mercy or the USNS Comfort provided care and relief across the globe. Operation Desert Shield/Storm of the early 1990s required 44 field hospitals across the globe, called Deployable Medical Systems (DEPMEDS), and included a staff of nearly 3,000 nurses.

From the war effort, nurses moved into new landscapes for the profession: Primary Care in the outpatient settings and Military Leadership command positions. Nurse Practitioners and nurses played important roles in managing clinics and providing care and education to service members and their families. Meanwhile, Nurse Corps officers were proving that they could lead and serve at all levels of the organization.

Modern Military Nursing
Throughout history, Navy nurses have made a tremendous impact to the men and women who have served, and continue to serve, the United States of America. From the War of 1812 to modern day campaigns, the stories of Navy nurses’ achievements, selfless dedication, and patriotism continue to inspire those who seek to know more of these angels with the lamps.