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Navy Nurse Corps

Early History of Navy Nurses

The Navy Nurse Corps was officially established in 1908, but women had been working aboard Navy ships and navy hospitals for nearly 100 years. During the American Civil War, a Navy Department circular order established the designation of Nurse, which was a position initially filled by junior enlisted men. This job was similar to what we know as a hospital corpsman today. However, several African American women served as nurses on the hospital ship Red Rover which was stationed in the Mississippi River area. Catholic nuns from the order of Sisters of the Holy Cross served as volunteer nurses on hospital ships.

During the Spanish-American War (1898), women served as contract nurses for the Navy. These female nurses were stationed in hospitals ashore while trained male nurses were sent to sea on the hospital ship Solace.


Establishment of the United States Navy Nurse Corps

On May 13, 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps was created by an act of Congress and were assigned to the Naval Medical School in Washington, D.C. The first nurses to serve in the Navy Nurse Corps were known as the Sacred Twenty with Esther Voorhees Hasson as the corps’ first superintendent. The corps gradually expanded to 160 prior to World War I and their first shipboard service was seen in 1913 aboard the Mayflower and Dolphin. In 1920, the first permanent shipboard positions were established when Relief went into commission with a medical staff – including Navy nurses. The Navy Nurse Corps was an all-female corps until 1965.


Navy Nurses in the Present Day

Since its founding, the Navy Nurse Corps has grown into a vital support service for the United States Navy. The corps expanded greatly during World War I and World War II and the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947 established a commissioned rank for nurses who served. Navy nurses have served in both peacetime and wartime on both land and at sea on hospital ships.


Holt Oral History programs about Navy Nurses:


Betty Bonwell Paps, Colonel, US Air Force

After Betty Bonwell Paps realized that she didn't want to pursue traditional hospital nursing, she seized the opportunity to become a member of the Air Force reserves, kickstarting an impressive twenty-year career of flight nursing, education, and military leadership.

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Mildred Dost, Nurse, US Army and Marian Boyer, Nurse, US Navy

From one twin sister surviving a serious car accident as a child to both sisters celebrating V-J Day at their different deployments, First Lieutenant Mildred Dost and Lieutenant Marian Boyer reflect upon their lives. Their joint interviews focuses on their service as nurses during World War II. “It was an education, let me tell ya!,” Dost exclaims.

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Diana J. Ramsey, 1st Lieutenant

Diana J. Ramsey served in the U. S. Army Nurse Corps as an Operating Room Nurse with the 67th EVAC in Qui Nhon, Vietnam from 1967 to 1968--including during the Tet Offensive.

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Join us for a book discussion to learn more about women in the military:


The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat

Join the Pritzker Military Museum and Library on September 21st for a discussion on the stories of trailblazing women who fought for the right to fly in the military with author Col. Eileen A. Bjorkman, moderated by Retired Navy pilot Jan Donatelli.

Retired Colonel Eileen A. Bjorkman’s new book, The FlyGirls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat, celebrates the historic milestones in women’s aviation by telling the stories of the trailblazing women who fought for the right to fly––including the author, a civilian pilot with a long military career herself. As a flight test engineer who was one of a handful of women to fly fighter airplanes in the 1980s, Bjorkman had a front-row seat to the history in the book.

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For further reading, check out these books from our Library:



Lucchesi, Emilie Le Beau. This Is Really War. 2019.

Print Books:

Conkling, Winifred, and Julia Kuo. Heroism Begins with Her: Inspiring Stories of Bold, Brave, and Gutsy Women in the U.S Military. First ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children's Books, An Imprint of HarperCollins, 2019.

Norman, Elizabeth M. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam. Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Schmidt, James M. Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.

Sterner, Doris M. In and Out of Harm's Way: A History of the Navy Nurse Corps. Seattle: Peanut Butter Pub, 1997.

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