World War II’s Influence on Nursing

By: LaCoya Pace

December 7, 1941 a date that will forever be remembered in American history, was the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. The air in the country after the attack was that of patriotism and determination to defend the nation. America’s involvement in World War II had a profound effect on the profession of nursing. In the time frame of the war nursing saw influences and changes take place within the creation of the National Nursing Council for War, the shortage in nurses, the expansion of nursing practice used while in flight, the view of African Americans serving their country, and the post-war affects of nursing when the war ended.

Prior to America’s involvement into the war President Roosevelt gave urgent talks to the country about the situation in Europe. It was Roosevelt’s imperative message about the need for national preparedness that help root the creation of The National Nursing Council for War. The council was created in July 1940 to represent the nursing profession in the United States. The council’s role included the promotion of the creation of a national inventory of registered nurses, expansion of existing nursing schools facilities, creating two categories of nursing: military or civilian nursing and supply additional nursing services to hospitals (Jamieson, Sewall, & Suhrie, 1966). In the beginning of America’s involvement of World War II many nurses were undecided about if they should join as military nurses or remain civilian nurses. However, The National Nursing Council for War Service established guidelines for the two different categories of service the nurses could go into: A nurse should serve in the armed forces if she was single, under 40 years old, and (1) doing private duty; (2) on a hospital’s general staff; (3) a head nurse not essential for teaching or supervision; (4) a public health nurse not essential for maintaining minimum civilian health service in any given community; (5) in a non-nursing position; or (6) an office nurse (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978, p. 453).

With the establishment of the National Nursing Council for War the nursing shortage was able to be tackled. With encouragement from the council the United States Public Health Service conducted a National Inventory of Registered Nurses, which informed them of the number of nurses in the nation, their preparation, experience and availability to help with the war (Jamieson et al., 1966). After the National Inventory of Registered Nurses was conducted it allowed for federal funds to be granted to nursing schools in the nation in good standing, so that they could increase student enrollment. During the beginning of World War II nurses that joined the military did not receive many benefits and were also underpaid compared to their male counter parts. However, as the war continued the need for nurses in both the civilian and military settings became so great that in 1943 Congress passed the Bolton Bill, sponsored by Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton (Jamieson et al., 1966). The Bolton Act was able to launch the United States Cadet Nurse Corps in which women that wanted to enter nursing school could do so with financial help from the government (Jamieson et al., 1966). Under the Bolton Act nursing students received an accelerated nursing education for 30 months or less along with their tuition, books, and uniforms paid for, and a monthly stipend.  However, in return these students had to remain as an active civilian or military nurse for the duration of the war. The Bolton Act also financially supported retired nurses willing to return to work to take refresher courses. Even though the Bolton Act helped to evade the shortage of military nurses needed, a shortage of nurses in the civilian hospitals corresponded. In response to this shortage the Red Cross created a Nurses’ Aid program in which volunteers were able to aid the nurses in some tasks. Yet, during the war the American Hospital Associate conducted a survey that revealed that in 23% of the nation’s hospital beds, wards and operating rooms were not being utilized because of the inadequate quantity of workers (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). Despite all of the recruiting from the Cadet Nurse Corps it came to the world as a shock in 1945 when President Roosevelt requested a draft for nurses. Another attempt at ending the nursing shortage was the Nurses’ Selective Service Bill of 1945, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a nurse’s draft if they were not able to get the necessary support through voluntary means (Brunk, 1997). However, the threat of a draft for nurses did manage to have 10,000 women volunteer all within the month of January (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978), but the war came to an end after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan.

By way of the Cadet Nurse Corps many women were able to take advantage of the opportunity were also privileged to be in attendance for the creation of flight nursing. Lauretta M. Schimmoler is given credit for the original idea of flight nurses (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). Initially the idea of nurses or any medical officials on aircrafts in which injured soldiers would be transported was opposed. However, in spite of the various discrepancies in 1942 a Nursing Division in the Air Surgeon’s office was established (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978, p. 461). Nurses were able to join the flight nurse training only after going through the Army Nurse Corps and serving six months in an Army Air Force unit hospital, followed by acceptance to Flight Nursing School. The nurse received the title of ‘flight nurse’ after being granted the honor by the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). While on missions flight nurses typically carried out their duties 5,000 to 10,000 feet in the air in an aircraft that was not pressurized (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). While in flight nurses watched for soldiers that may have an anxiety attack (Judd et al., 2010, p. 137), as well nurses also administered oxygen in flight and worked as a team with pharmacists. These flight nurses, who volunteered for this position, were truly courageous. They flew in C-46 planes that were unmarked and transported cargo and troops to the battle fields. Because the aircrafts were unmarked it made them fair game as a target in war zones. After dropping off the cargo they helped transform the aircraft into an ambulance for the ill and injured soldiers they would pick up. During the war 1079 flight nurses graduated from the AAF School of Air Evacuation, and committed themselves to helping the country (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978).

Along with the advancement of flight nursing there was also advancement with African American nurses during the war. Interestingly enough African American nurses were allowed to serve during World War I in the corps, but they were not accepted in the beginning of World War II. Mabel K. Staupers, the executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses asked President Roosevelt to change the discriminatory policy so that African American nurses would be able to serve in the war (Kuhn, 1999, p. 53). In January 1941, Staupers efforts paid off when the Army opened the nurse corps to black women. However there was a limit of only 56 African American nurses that could join the corps (Sheldon, 1998). In WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) enlisted African American women served in segregated units, participated in segregated training, lived in separate quarters, ate at separate tables in mess halls, and used segregated recreation facilities (Sheldon, 1998). These African American nurses that were able to serve in the war were also mandated to primarily nurse black soldiers. In face of these segregated times in July 1944 the quota for African American Army Nurses was eliminated (Sheldon, 1998). Towards the end of the war there was a strong movement for the recruitment of African American nurses, as supported by the militaries foundation of the Coordinating Committee on Negro Nursing to help push for racial equality (Judd et al., 2010). By the end of the war only 500 African American women had served in the nurse cadet corps (Kuhn, 1999).

With the ending of the World War II many changes were brought to the profession of nursing, but no one could have expected an increased nursing shortage after the war as being an effect. After the war ended only one in six nurses returned to their previous nursing positions (Judd et al., 2010, p. 141). In a survey conducted post-war 65% of the hospitals reported that they were acutely short of nursing personnel (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978, p. 493). It became a huge mystery as to where a good majority of the registered nurses went after the war. Subsequent to the war many nurses returned to the United States and went on vacation, some were injured from serving in the war, many married and others returned back to being retired (Jamieson et al., 1966). Some nurses did not return to their pre-war jobs because they decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and advance their education (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). However, one of the primary reasons some nurses did not return was a complaint they voiced that they had a lack of autonomy in their institutions compared to the flexibility and satisfying roles with great responsibility they had in the military (Judd et al., 2010). Many nurses had felt that they achieved the status of professional and were often not treated as that by physicians, administrators, or the public (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1978). Wages were also an issue as to why some nurses did not want to return. These nurses felt they were being underpaid especially in comparison to women in other non-nursing occupations. Following the refusal of nurses returning there was an added shortage of nurses due to the decreased entrance of women into nursing schools after the removal of the Cadet Nurse Corps (Jamieson et al., 1966). Furthermore registered nurses felt insulted with the growing expansion of the use of practical nurses and nurses’ aides taking the jobs that they did.

Following World War II the profession of nursing was given so much such as autonomy, representation in the United States through the National Nursing Council for War, the ability to grow in their specialty through flight nursing, the ability to diversify and strengthen the representation of African American nurses, and attaining respect from the public as an important component in the war. Yet, in spite of these gains, the profession of nursing was ultimately pushed back due to the nurses returning back to their pre-war jobs that did not mature as they did while fighting for their country.


Brunk, Q. (1997). Nursing at War: Catalyst for Change. Annual Review of Nursing Research, 15, 217-236.

How The War’s End Led to a New World for Nursing. (2008, July 2). Nursing Standard, 22, 18-20. Retrieved from

Jamieson, E. M., Sewall, M. F., & Suhrie, E. B. (1966). Trends In Nursing History: Their Social, International and Ethical Relationships (6th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders Company.

Judd, D., Sitzman, K., & Davis, G. M. (2010). A History of American Nursing: Trends and Eras. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Kalisch, P. A., & Kalisch, B. J. (1978). The Advance of American Nursing. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Kuhn, B. (1999). Angels of Mercy: The Army Nurses of World War II. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Robinson, V. (1946). White Caps: The Story of Nursing. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company.

Sheldon, K. (1998). Brief History of Black Women in the Military. Retrieved from


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