When WWI and Influenza Struck, Women Stepped Up as Nurses

May 03, 2013
Jane Delano, director of nursing, American Red Cross

Jane Delano, director of nursing, American Red Cross, courtesy of Nursing World

By 1918, World War I had been waging for years, and an influenza epidemic had started spreading that claimed more lives — 50 million — than the war. There was a severe shortage of nurses at a time when there was a particularly heartbreaking demand for care for the war wounded and the sick. If you watch Downton Abbey, you’ve seen a recent depiction of the carnage of that war, the sweeping outbreak of influenza, and how crucial nurses were in that time. By now, we all should know how well the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (one of AAUW’s predecessors) and AAUW have responded to societal needs throughout history. 1918 was no exception. The ACA harnessed the power of our educated, driven membership to fill this desperate need.

Nursing leaders, realizing that the shortage was only getting worse, aimed their recruiting efforts at recent college graduates. They often had a few science courses under their belt, and they were part of a generation of young women characterized with progressive fervor and a desire to serve and be useful. Once trained, they could be employed overseas but also on the home front. Just think of the needs — not only thousands of soldiers returning from battle but a deadly influenza epidemic sweeping across the nation!

page from an AAUW-archived journal

“Woman’s Great Profession of the Future,” Journal of the ACA, Vol. XI, No. 7, March 1918. AAUW Archives

In an article in the Journal of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, Jane Delano, director of nursing for the American Red Cross, called upon the recent women college graduates of the ACA to join the ranks of the nursing profession. She described the many benefits of the profession and detailed the great need for nurses due to World War I. “The capable, trained nurse,” Delano wrote, “is one who has learned to think in terms of humanity; the work of her hands and brain is the foundation of a healthier and happier future for the human race.”

So during the summer of 1918, many young Association of Collegiate Alumnae members spent their summer vacation in Poughkeepsie, New York, where Vassar College offered the use of its campus for the Vassar Training Camp for Nurses. Called the “college woman’s Plattsburgh,” it was modeled after a similar training camp in northern New York that recruited male college graduates for intensive military training.

The training camp was funded by the American Red Cross. Courses, taught by distinguished faculty, covered household management; elementary nursing, including bandaging, anatomy, physiology, applied chemistry, bacteriology, pathology, hospital economics, nutrition, and dietetics; and subjects beyond the “care of the sick and wounded.”

As National Nurses Week approaches (May 6–12), we should be proud of the many ACA members who saw a need and filled it, joining the ranks of the nursing profession, or as Delano called it, the “women’s great profession of the future.”

Suzanne Gould By:   |   May 03, 2013

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