Right up to the 1940s, becoming a Nurse was not the vocation that parents wanted their daughters to take up. Nursing now ranks in the top five of most respected professions. Wow, that’s a big jump in seventy-five years. That change in attitude happened with the coming of World War II, some well written marketing campaigns, and we will toss in the first issues of the “Wonder Woman” comics for good measure!
Is your curiosity piqued? I hope so.
Let us start with America becoming more involved in World War II in the early 1940s. Men were entering military service leaving thousands of job openings. Industry was ramping up to make supplies resulting in more job openings. All these positions needed to be filled. Women for the first time could hold jobs that were never open to them before.
At the same time experienced nurses signed up for the armed services leaving the hospitals critically understaffed with very few young women choosing to take their places. Why would she choose to spend money on training that could take several years, when she could make good enough money down at the local factory now? And besides that, nursing wasn’t seen as an attractive vocation.
American healthcare was needing a band-aide stat!
The government tried to put some money toward re-training inactive nurses, and nursing education, but it wasn’t working. They could not recruit enough to keep up with the demand. The shortages continued.
In response, a national call to action happened in the shape of the Bolton Act of 1943 and the formation of the US Cadet Nurse Corps. The first director of the Cadet Nurse Corps was Lucile Petry RN who wrote: “So VITAL is the nation’s need for womanpower in nursing that the seventy-eighth Congress has appropriated sufficient funds to give assistance to every nurse to prepare herself for this work. Through the Bolton Act, health on the home front and healing on the battlefront are thus accorded their rightful place in the total effort of a nation at war.”
The Bolton Act would give grants to institutions that trained nurses to fill the shortage in military and civilian hospitals, health agencies, and war industries. It also offered post graduate training money for specialty nurses and nurse educators. This Act also stated that there would be no discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin at these schools. That was a very novel idea back then. It would prove to be a wonderful opportunity for minority women, because it caused many schools to be open to them for the first time.
This directive to recruit nurses was done carefully. They had to educate student nurses quicker so they could fill the gaps quicker. Yet, not compromise the quality of the education. This meant the leaders in Nursing and Public Health had to come up with a sure fire curriculum delivered in a certain way. You could say the war and the US Cadet Corps spurred an improvement in nursing education. If schools wanted to be considered for the grants, and they did, they had to get on board and beef up their programs. Nurse Consultants were hired to help them do that. Standards were being set down.
Now all they needed were students! Nursing needed an image facelift!
Wait, what about Wonder Woman?
Wonder Woman was written by William Marston who believed that women were strong, smart and should have all the opportunities available to them as men did. Using the popular medium of comic books, he put all that into his character Wonder Woman, who debuted in 1941. You could say he helped lay down a few positive Nurse image bricks with the debut of Wonder Woman’s own comic in 1942. Within those first comic books were stand alone stories about “Wonder Women of History”. They highlighted famous historical women. In the first issue of Wonder Woman comics, was the story of Nurse Florence Nightingale. Extraordinary Nurses would be featured four more times. Almost every child in America at that time was reading comic books. Young girls not only had a new heroine in Wonder Woman who pushed the boundaries of what they were told women could do, but now they read about real women of substance, and several of them were nurses.
A year later in 1943, the government turned to experts to take over the public relations campaign to recruit brave women to become nurses. They hired professional advertising specialists to try and make Nursing and the US Cadet Corp something every young woman desired to join. They had a target of sixty-five thousand positions to fill.
First they had to let everyone know Nursing was a proud, honorable, and respectful profession, and the way to become one was through the US Cadet Nurse Corps. They tied in the attraction of being part of a uniformed service:women could serve their country, too! They stressed that she could easily find a job when the war ended and the men came back. That this training would serve her for a lifetime. Oh, and the icing on the cake, her education was free! The only catch, was that upon graduation she would have to serve where ever she would be needed till the end of the war.
Millions of posters were made and put up everywhere. There were radio commercials and newsreels shown before a movie started. Short plays were put on before women’s and girls clubs/groups. Hospitals and Nursing schools set up recruitment centers. Pamphlets and information were readily available. And they hatched up an even bigger idea to spread the word. They would have all the Cadets sworn in at once with the help of the radio broadcasting system. Cadets could go to Washington DC for the assembly, or they could stand near a radio anywhere in the U.S. in groups at their schools or place of work. This also meant everyone in America could listen in, which they did, two million strong. Celebrities spoke, and even Bing Crosby sang from California. It was a grand show to promote a great cause.
All that publicity worked. In 1943 and 1944 they met their recruitment goal and even exceeded it a bit. In the last year of the program, 1945, Cadet Nurses made up eight-five percent of all Nursing students in the U.S.
This is where my Mom comes into the story. She started Nursing School at the height of the Nursing shortage. With so few RNs working the “wards”, Nursing Instructors put their students to work caring for the patients when they weren’t in classes. This made for very long days/weeks. Mom said she was exhausted all the time, though when she recounted that time in her training, she spoke with affection. There was great camaraderie with her fellow students as they stuck together to overcome any and all obstacles and strived to give the best patient care possible with limited experience and resources.
While at that hospital school she heard about the new US Cadet Nurse Program. She had four brothers and a close cousin serving in the military at that time. Her fifth brother soon would be. She wanted to do her part, and the idea of a scholarship would really help her family out that just scraped together enough money to keep her in school. She joined the Corps and wore the uniform with pride.
When my Mother graduated, she served at a large Army Base hospital till the end of the war. That hospital cared for thousands of wounded soldiers returning from both theaters till the end of the war. The Bolton Act did what it promised to do: She helped ease the nursing wartime shortage while receiving an education toward a lifelong profession. She never stopped working as a Nurse till her retirement from the Veterans Administration Hospital System almost forty years later.
My Mother was just one of 179,000 Cadet Nurse Corps Graduates. If you multiple her career years by that huge number, just think of how many lives over all those years they have changed, and their impact on healthcare here in the U.S. and overseas! Amazing!! Well done Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton who introduced the Bolton Act. Well done Nursing Leaders/Educators for improving the curriculum. Well done Mom and all the other Cadets for having the passion and drive to care for others.
Happy Nurses Week to all those who took up the call down through history up to now!
Atwood RN BSN
http://uscadetnurse.org/ Start here. This website is dedicated to the history of the US Cadet Corps, its members then and now, and the status of the legacy. You can read about how other Cadets went on to wonderful inspirational careers.
That website led me to this great book ..
“Your Country Needs You: Cadet Nurses of World War II” by Thelma M. Robinson. Not only is this book an excellent history of the US Cadet Nurse Corps, but also for those wanting to know more about Nursing History in general. *
- “Cadet nurses were the largest group of uniformed women (179,000) and the youngest (average age 19) to serve our country during World War II. “
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