MGH Nurses ready to serve

America had been readying to enter the Great War for a year prior to its official declaration in 1917. Coordinated through the American Red Cross, MGH was among those U.S. hospitals selected to provide staffing for the equivalent of a 500-bed hospital in Europe if war came. The MGH Unit, Base Hospital No.6, was to be located in Talence, France, near Bordeaux. The MGH staffing would initially consist of 23 physicians, selected by MGH general director Frederic Washburn, MD, and 65 nurses, selected by chief nurse Sara Parsons, RN, plus 25 reserves. Shortly before their departure from Boston, the entire staff of Base Hospital No. 6 met together for the first time at a farewell service held at Trinity Church. Bishop Lawrence presided with the Unit’s chaplain, Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill, who described the event as, “the most moving service I ever attended.” Over the course of the war, the size of Base Hospital No.6 would increase to 4,000 beds with more than 100 nurses.

All potential nurse volunteers were required to be single and between the ages of 25 and 35. They had to undergo physical exams, immunizations against smallpox and typhoid, and provide training school and alumnae association credentials prior to signing the muster-in roll, which committed them to service for the duration of the war. Many had never before left their home towns.

American Red Cross wallet card of MGH School of Nursing graduate Dorothy Tarbox

Initially enrolled as Red Cross nurses, they were transferred to the Nurse Corps of the U.S. Army upon taking the oath of allegiance before shipping out from New York City. In July 1918 the Nurse Corps was redesignated the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) by the Army Reorganization Act. By law, appointments were restricted to female nurses. Although part of the larger U.S. Army, nurses had no military rank, had to provide their own uniforms and were paid about $50 a month. At the war’s onset 403 nurses belonged to the ANC nationwide; by war’s end in November 1918, there were more than 22,400 enrolled nurses, 10,000 of whom were serving overseas.

MGH nurses preparing to ship out

Fully half of all MGH nurses volunteered to serve at some point during the Great War. In addition to Base Hospital No. 6, other base hospitals with MGH personnel included No.5 (Peter Bent Brigham), No.22 (Harvard Surgical) and No. 55 (an Army-run hospital). In the absence of those nurses who had enlisted, many MGH School of Nursing (SON) alumnae returned to practice at the hospital. The MGH nursing staff at that time consisted almost entirely of students and SON graduates; the “staff nurse” position did not formally exist until 1925. Staffing levels at the hospital were further taxed in the fall of 1918 when a worldwide flu pandemic hit Boston.

Muster-In Roll of the American Red Cross

Throughout the Great War a total about 240 SON graduates served in various capacities and settings—base hospitals, clearing stations near the front, hospital trains crossing Europe, mobile surgical units and hospitals in London and Paris. They filled administrative roles (13 were chief nurses at base hospitals), administered anesthesia, organized and led educational programs at the newly-created U.S. Army Schools of Nursing. They cared for soldiers, refugees, prisoners and one another when they became ill. As prepared as the nurses were by their MGH training, caring for sick and wounded men presented a unique challenge. Thanks to their competence and Sara Parsons’ leadership it was a challenge met and mastered.

Suffragettes protesting outside of the White House

Of note, throughout this period, none of these women who served had the right to vote. Meanwhile, the U.S. was at the height its decades-long suffragette movement designed to gain this right. In 1917, hundreds of female protesters were arrested while picketing at the White House, several going on hunger strikes while in jail and enduring forced feedings and beatings by their guards. It was not until 1920—a full two years after The Great War ended—that the 19th amendment passed and U.S. women were able to cast their first ballots. Even so, the battle to earn rank for the Army nurses continued, eventually landing Parsons before Congress to testify on their behalf.

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