How Founder of Army Nurse Corps Became a Trailblazer

Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee (Photos: U.S. Army Office of Medical History)
Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee (U.S. Army Office of Medical History photos)

Considering her era, breeding and gender, it is remarkable enough that Anita Newcomb McGee graduated from what is now George Washington University in 1892 with a medical degree. Yet the remarkable Dr. McGee went on to propose, run and regulate what would become the Army Nurse Corps, which proudly celebrates its 100th birthday on Feb. 2, 2001.

The daughter of a naval officer and his wife, Anita Newcomb was born in 1864 and given the best education available to women, both at home and abroad. She married geologist W.J. McGee in 1888, but he must have approved of her career goals. During their 25-year marriage, she graduated from medical school, pursued a private practice and became the only woman ever to hold the position of acting assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, among other achievements.

McGee was active in many organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution as a vice president general. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, McGee recognized that the small number of male stewards who were the armed forces' nurses were not adequate for wartime needs. When she suggested that the DAR act as an examining board for female nurses, the Army and Navy surgeons general approved.

McGee had strict requirements for acceptance, the most important being a candidate's graduation from an accredited nurse training school. She became acting assistant surgeon general and drafted the legislation that created the modern Army Nurse Corps. As director of the "DAR Hospital Corps," she supervised a roll of more than 1,000 Army nurses by war's end.

"Scarcely a training school in the United States but sent some of its best representatives for this work, and the women adapted themselves to camp conditions and to many sorts of discomfort in a manner that quite altered the many preconceived opinions [of them]," McGee said in a speech delivered to an 1899 conference of military surgeons.

McGee could not head the newly created Army Nurse Corps in 1901 because of congressional legislation requiring a graduate nurse in that position. She went on to organize the Society of Spanish-American War Nurses and even served with nine of them as volunteers in the Russo-Japanese War. She died in 1940 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

One of McGee's contemporaries, a male Army surgeon, said of her recruits: "When you were coming, we did not know what we would do with you. Now we do not know what we would have done without you." His words sum up the Army's and the nation's debt of gratitude to the men and women who have served for more than a century as members of the Army Nurse Corps.

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