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.