What next? Parsons works to gain rank for military nurses

Sara Elizabeth Parsons (1864-1949) was appointed superintendent of nurses at MGH in 1910 at the height of her lifetime of ground-breaking service. Parsons’ contributions were felt at home and abroad, by service-men during the war and by nurses in the profession she loved so dearly. A physically unassuming woman, Parsons was a force to be reckoned with on many fronts.

Parsons lived in an era marked by exceptional conflict. She was born during the Civil War and died shortly after the end of World War II. She grew up in Oxford, Massachusetts, home of Clara Barton, the Civil War’s ‘Angel of the Battlefield.’ Perhaps inspired by Barton, Parsons became a nurse and served during the Spanish American War and World War I. In 1884, at 20 years old, Parsons left her hometown of 2,600 people and headed to Boston, then a city of 362,477 — many, immigrants fleeing countries plagued by famine or hostile political regimes.

Parsons in her early twenties

Parsons enrolled in the new Training School for Nurses at Boston City Hospital then under the leadership of America’s first trained nurse, Linda Richards. Within months, she returned home to care for her ailing mother, who passed away just three days after her arrival. Parsons spent the next seven years caring for her half-sisters, then at age 27, resumed her training at the Boston Training School at Massachusetts General Hospital from which she graduated in 1893. She continued her education at the McLean Asylum in Somerville, graduating from there in 1895. Perhaps based on that experience, Parsons decided to go into nursing for the ‘nervous and insane,’ which later became known as psychiatric nursing.

Hospital ship S.S. Bay State

Shortly after beginning her nursing career, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898, inciting the start of the Spanish-American War. Parsons joined an MGH contingent aboard the SS Bay State, the first hospital ship ever to be outfitted by an aid organization and authorized by a sovereign power under the articles of the Geneva Convention. Between August and October of that year, despite sea-sickness, rough weather, and intense heat, the Bay State made three voyages bringing more than 300 sick and wounded soldiers back to Boston. In Puerto Rico, Parsons cared for hundreds of men suffering from yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria on a coffee plantation that had been converted to a hospital. On her time off, she ventured inland to exult in the pristine scenery of Puerto Rico, taking pride in knowing she was the first American woman ever to do so.

Sara Parsons, 1914

In 1910, Parsons was named superintendent of nurses at MGH, where she dedicated her tenure to advancing nursing as a profession. Once again, conflict impacted her career as nations overseas entered into a war that would later be known as World War I. As the US prepared to go to war (in 1917), Parsons was appointed chief nurse of MGH Base Hospital No. 6, which would be deployed to Bordeaux, France. Given their training, nurses of Base Hospital No. 6 were prepared for any emergency. “What next?” they asked after caring for a convoy of wounded soldiers. By October, 1918, the hospital had expanded from 200 beds to caring for 4,319 patients as Armistice Day approached.

Back in the US, Parsons’ ‘What next’ involved trying to gain official rank for army nurses. The War Department opposed nurses having official rank, arguing that nurses already had authority over enlisted men and were “at all times to be obeyed.” But in reality, transient, untrained orderlies did not recognize this informal authority. Officials feared that rank would place many nurses above doctors who were commissioned officers. Women had played a significant role in service to their country during the war, but the country, it seemed, was now questioning the stature and rights of women.

Testifying before the Committee on Military Affairs, Parsons countered the claims of the War Department, saying that regulation #1421½ wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces, sided with nurses, having visited Base Hospital No. 6 and seen nurses caring for wounded soldiers. Pershing favored nurses having rank as far up as second lieutenant. Parson spent a month of her vacation working with the National Committee on Rank for Nurses. She urged MGH School of Nursing alumnae, especially those who’d served during the war, to contact their legislators. As the Jones-Raker Bill on Army Reorganization moved through Congress in 1919, letters, resolutions, and petitions poured into Washington in support of rank for nurses.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Raker Bill into law, June 4, 1920; nurses now had the right to wear an insignia designating their relative rank. Later that year, US women gained the right to vote. Not until April 16, 1947, did nurses finally gain commissioned-officer status with pay equal to men of the same rank.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. Look for other installments from the MGH Nursing History Committee in future issues of Caring Headlines. For more information, contact Georgia Peirce, special projects manager, at 617-724-9865.

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