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Historical Review of the Formation of the American Red Cross Nursing Service: 1880’s-1919


Historically in American communities during times of disaster, capable women and men stepped forward to provide aid by volunteering as nurses for the American Red Cross. Their efforts were visible at the scene of the 1888 Florida Yellow Fever epidemic, the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood, and the hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and mining disasters that scarred the continental American landscape. But Red Cross community volunteers were too often few, as was the availability of the late 20th century’s emerging new American class of professionally trained nurses.

During the 1898 Spanish-American War, Red Cross organizers nationwide scrambled to recruit trained nurses to allay critical nursing shortages in military hospitals. That their skills were needed in fields of disaster was also evident: trained nurses were uniquely capable emergency organizers, caregivers, aid distributors and sanitary engineers. Yet no system was in place at Washington, D.C. headquarters through which to recruit, enroll and organize a qualified national reserve of professionally trained Red Cross nurses—to serve the nation in time of war or peace.

No event since the war in 1898 underscored the urgency more dramatically than the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. California nurses—and those in bordering states—voluntarily raced to the city and worked the disaster without the efficient benefit of a central organizing nursing structure. Soon after reporting their disheartening experience, they were joined by other American nursing leaders pressing for a Red Cross nursing affiliation. The time was ripe for innovation.

Following Clara Barton’s transition out of the office of president and the 1905 Red Cross re-charter, the restructured Red Cross—having revised its mission and appointed new leadership—was primed to formalize a national professional Red Cross nursing component. Red Cross Central Committee Secretary, Mabel Boardman, advocated for the professional nursing alignment. Proposals were submitted and revised.

Red Cross nursing entered its modern professional era in 1909 with the founding of the Committee on Nursing Service in Washington, D.C. Its first appointed chairman was Jane Arminda Delano, a pre-imminent New York hospital training school administrator and concurrently Superintendent of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and national president of the American Nurses Association. Delano’s cross-service professional representation gave her an unsurpassed nationwide leadership voice in American nursing affairs.

With strong support within the Red Cross Central Committee and widespread enthusiasm among the enlarging continental ranks of American nurses, the Red Cross nursing division was systematically organized and expanded into a national professional Red Cross nursing service reserve. During Delano’s 10 year leadership term, 1909-19, American Red Cross nurses were not only ready and able for immediate deployment to fields of disaster, but were progenitors of community-based public health services TB eradication programs, prepared for leadership in international humanitarian missions and, most dramatically, organized for military and civilian nursing service during World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.