The Women of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps
by Elsie Szecsy, author of The Cadet Nurse Corps in Arizona: A History of Service
During this Women’s History Month we devote this blog post to the patriotism of 180,000 women in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II. Of this number, over 124,000 completed training and became registered nurses. At its peak, Cadet Nurses provided up to 80% of a hospital’s nurses during World War II. Some say that the average length of their careers was 28 years, but that could be a conservative estimate. I have learned of Cadet Nurses who had careers in nursing of at least 50 years.
The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps began via the effort of a number of remarkable women. First, Representative Frances Payne Bolton (Rep., Ohio) introduced the bill into Congress that ultimately became the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps. The legislative process lasted for less than 6 months, and legislation was unanimously approved. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed what became known as the Bolton Act into law in June 1943, and the program commenced operation in July 1943. The director of the program was Lucile Petry, R.N., who was the founding director of nurse education at the U.S. Public Health Service, which administered the program. Lucile Petry was also the first woman to subsequently become assistant surgeon general during her distinguished career with the Public Health Service.
Had it not been for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, the healthcare system in the United States would have most assuredly collapsed; so many graduate nurses were leaving the hospitals and entering military service as nurses during World War II. However, the women who served in this uniformed corps were instrumental in so many efforts in service not only to country but also to the nursing profession.
In Arizona, for example, local schools of nursing leveraged federal funding through this program to advance a number of innovative practices for the time. For example, in Arizona was:
• The nation’s only accredited school of nursing for Native Americans. Nearly every Native American Cadet Nurse in the nation was trained there.
• The nation’s first integrated hospital and school of nursing west of the Mississippi River. One of their nursing students continued in nursing and was instrumental in building the nursing program at an Arizona community college in the 1950s.
These are remarkable accomplishments because at the time nursing schools were segregated. African American women went to Black nursing schools, and White women went to White nursing schools. Through a standardized curriculum to be followed by all schools in the Cadet Nurse Corps, all student nurses were assured the same level of preparation. Also, married women had been previously prohibited from nursing schools. The terms of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps program aimed to put an end to these discriminatory practices decades before the civil rights movement.
There was probably a Cadet Nurse in the delivery room when those of us of a certain age came into the world during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this huge cohort of service-women goes relatively unnoticed. Unlike their Rosie the Riveter sisters’ fate, when the War ended, Cadet Nurses did not have to leave the workforce, though many did to get married and start families. The circumstance of war opened a new career pathway for women at a time when many new developments were happening in nurse education and the nursing profession.
After the war these women were at the forefront of medical innovations, such as the iron lung and a new vaccine to eradicate polio. They were there to introduce emergency rooms to hospitals and to develop the school nurse specialty, geriatric nursing, and outpatient surgical centers during the 1950s. Some Cadet Nurses found their way into higher education as professors in an evolving nurse education in the transition from hospital-based to university-based nursing schools.
Nurses touched the lives of men and women around the country, so this women’s topic is important to men and women. To learn more, check out The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps in Arizona: A History of Service
, published recently by The History Press. Also good reading is the United States Public Health Service’s The United States Cadet Nurse Corps [1943-1948] and other Federal nurse training programs
. One can find a link to a digital copy of the Public Health Service publication at the uscadetnurse.org website. This website and companion Facebook page also contain Cadet Nurses’ stories about their experiences during and after World War II.