In the fourth volume of Medicine and the Navy, their history of the Royal Navy, Christopher Lloyd and Jack Coulter say that the development of the (British) Naval Nursing Service was a “long and tortuous process”.
The same can be said for that of the U S Navy. In the mid-nineteenth century–for instance, at the Naval Hospital at Mare Island in California–“nurses” (and called such) were always males; they were paid about the same as assistant cooks, and worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Their training was entirely “on-the-job”. It appears that the first females to work in U S Navy facilities did so during the Civil War, when four Catholic sisters served in this role aboard the Navy (originally Army) Hospital Ship Red Rover. They were thanked for their service and dismissed as the Civil War wound down.
A great wave of patriotic fervor during the Spanish-American War prompted many nurses and nursing associations to write the Navy Surgeon General with offers to volunteer their services to the navy. The SG invariably courteously declined these offers, indicating he thought it inappropriate for women to serve “in view of trying conditions attendant upon naval warfare”. However, four women–three medical students from Johns Hopkins and a pre-med student from MIT–reported for duty at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital on 18 May 1898, and served with distinction “for the duration”.
It wasn’t long, then, before Navy Surgeon General Rixey wrote in his annual report (1902) to the Secretary of the Navy “[t]here has been a growing conviction in the minds of many of the most experienced medical officers of the service, especially since the war with Spain, that the employment of women for the nursing of the sick in our large hospitals would result in greater efficiency than has been obtained heretofore by the use of male nurses alone, and that such employment would not conflict with the conditions arising from the military character of the institution.” He went on “[i]t is recommended, therefore, that Congress be asked to provide at its coming session for the establishment of a Woman Nurse Corps for the Navy, to consist at first of one superindendent [sic] nurse, eight head nurses, sixteen nurses of the first class and twenty-four nurses of the second class, these numbers to be increased at the discretion of the Secretary as the needs of the service indicate.”
Initially reluctant–perhaps for truly budgetary reasons–Congress finally assented with legislation providing for the establishment of the Nurse Corps of the United States Navy.
Immediately their service was appreciated: the Commanding Officer at the Mare Island Navy Hospital requested the assignment of more nurses to his facility within months after the first complement of 8 arrived in 1910. Navy nurses have gone on to serve in increasingly difficult circumstances with honor and valor.