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Red Cross Nursing

A Vital Part of Our Organization From the Very Beginning

Today’s Red Cross nurses are continuing a proud tradition of service that stretches back to the earliest days the organization. Nursing was at the core of the International Red Cross Movement at its beginning and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, first came to public attention as an amateur nurse who provided aid to soldiers during the Civil War.

Red Cross nurses were involved mainly in disaster relief and support to the military during the early years, generally serving on an “as needed” basis.

  • Clara Barton and a team of volunteers operated field hospitals during annual U.S. army maneuvers in Washington, DC beginning in 1887.
  • Red Cross nurses worked to combat a severe yellow fever outbreak around Jacksonville, FL in 1888. Some became famous for jumping off a moving train when the railroad refused to stop in one badly-afflicted small town.
  • Nurses helped survivors of the 1889 Johnstown, PA flood that killed more than 2,000 and left 25,000 homeless.
  • In 1898 the Red Cross provided our first assistance to the military during wartime, recruiting 700 nurses during the Spanish-American War.
  • The role of the American Red Cross in wartime and peace time was formalized by Congressional charters in 1900 and 1905. In response, the organization created the Red Cross Nursing Service and appointed a strong-willed visionary, Jane Delano, as its director. Among her accomplishments, Delano:

  • Created a Red Cross nurses’ reserve in preparation for service with the military in wartime.
  • Expanded nursing into domestic life with educational programs in home nursing and first aid.
  • Established a Rural Nursing Service (later known as the “Town and Country Nursing Program.”) for medically underserved communities.
  • Within weeks of the outbreak of World War I, the Red Cross dispatched a “Mercy Ship” with medical supplies, doctors, and 125 nurses to aid military and civilian victims of the conflict. When the United States entered the war, we recruited more than 23,000 nurses to serve at home and overseas.

    To help overworked nurses care for returning veterans and to sustain ongoing, domestic nursing programs, the Red Cross introduced the Volunteer Nurses’ Aide Service in 1918.

    During the war and following the 1918 armistice, Red Cross nurses aided those afflicted by diseases that accompanied the hostilities, including the Spanish flu epidemic which began in Europe and caused an estimated 22 million deaths worldwide. The American Red Cross recruited more than 15,000 women, including nurses and others who had taken home nursing classes, to help care for flu victims in the United States.

    Service to civilian war victims in Europe continued for several years after hostilities ended. The American Red Cross set up hundreds of health centers and child welfare stations staffed by Red Cross doctors, social workers, and nurses.

    At home, nurses continued to provide service to convalescing veterans. At the same time, we increased our civilian services:

  • New courses in first aid and nutrition for homemakers
  • Expanded rural nursing programs
  • A special fund to train public health service nurses
  • Emergency relief following natural disasters, as well as to social problems caused by the Great Depression
  • In 1930, the newly-established Veterans Administration took over responsibility for the health care of veterans, although the Red Cross continued to provide social and recreational services. When the federal government introduced Social Security in 1935, the Red Cross reduced its public health nursing activities because the new system provided communities with their own public health funds.

    By World War II, our role was limited to recruiting nurses for the Army and Navy Nursing Corps. During the war, approximately 153,000 nurses held “active” status on Red Cross rolls and 71,000 of them served with the military at home and overseas.

    The Red Cross launched a blood supply program for the armed services in February 1941. When blood procurement reached its peak in June 1944, nearly 1,000 nurses served in Red Cross blood centers across the country.

    After the war, the U.S. government created a permanent Army and Navy Nurse Corps, ending our nurse recruitment responsibilities. Continued expansion of government into public health eventually caused the Red Cross to end its public health nursing service. Red Cross nurses focused on other areas of community service:

  • Disaster relief after floods, hurricanes, tornados and more
  • Teaching courses in home nursing and nutrition
  • The Red Cross civilian blood program
  • National health emergencies such as the severe polio epidemic in the 1940s and 50s and periodic influenza outbreaks
  • In their distinctive capes and hats, nurses were the public face of the American Red Cross for many decades. Today, the Red Cross nurse “uniform” may be a simple vest and pin but they remain a vital part of our disaster services, blood program, and health and safety training. More than 20,000 nurses are involved today in paid and volunteer service with the American Red Cross, sharing the mission of all the women and men who have served under our banner for more than 130 years.

    To learn more about today’s Red Cross nurses, and how you can get involved, please visit our Nursing and Health section.

    Red Cross Nurses Through the Ages

    Jane Delano: The Founder of the American Red Cross Nursing Service

    jane delano

    To this day, Red Cross nurses follow in the footsteps of Jane Delano, a leading pioneer of the modern nursing profession, who almost single-handedly created American Red Cross Nursing.

    A woman of incredible energy, her remarkable career included service as:

  • Chairman of the National Committee on Red Cross Nursing Service (1909-1919)
  • Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps (1909-1912)
  • President of the American Nurses’ Association (1909-1911)
  • Chairman of the board of directors of the American Journal of Nursing (1908-1911)
  • Download the Complete Biography

    jane delano statue

    Not long after her death, American nurses collected funds for a memorial to Delano and the other nurses who died in the service of their country. R.Tait McKenzie, a sculptor and physician, designed a bronze memorial featuring the draped figure of a graceful woman with hands extended to show a nurse’s readiness to serve. An inscription states, “To Jane A. Delano and the 296 nurses who died in the War–1917-1918.”

    The memorial is located in Red Cross Square, at 430 17th St NW, in Washington, D.C. We invite you to take a moment on your next trip to our nation’s capital to visit and reflect on this remarkable woman and her dedicated colleagues.

    Volunteer Opportunities for Nurses & Nursing Students

    90% of the work of the Red Cross is done by volunteers. Nurses and other health professionals serve as clinicians, educators, leaders and more. Use our volunteer role finder to explore opportunities in your community.