Today’s American Red Cross nurses — more than 20,000 strong — uphold a proud tradition of service that dates to our founder, Clara Barton. For more than a century, they have cared for people during disasters and other humanitarian crises, including two major ones at once: World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918.
NURSES SAIL TO HELP DURING WWI In the summer of 1914, Europe was thrown into chaos with the onset of World War I. The American Red Cross offered units of physicians and nurses to help each European nation involved in the conflict.
The Red Cross brought together several medical units, each consisting of 12 nurses and three doctors from states near the port of departure, New York City. They had to agree to go wherever posted, stay in Europe for at least six months and speak a European language. Surgical experience was a must. Because conditions could be primitive, candidates had to pass a physical exam and provide proof of protection against smallpox and typhoid.
In September 1914, the nurses and surgeons set sail for Europe aboard the SS Red Cross, also known as the Mercy Ship, with medical equipment and supplies. Overseas, they offered neutral, emergency aid to those at war. In all, 350 surgeons and nurses participated in military hospitals in Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Russia and the Balkans.
While some of the nurses and doctors returned home upon completing their six-month period, most teams stayed in place. Today, we honor their selfless service and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, including Red Cross nurse Clara Edith Ayres, who was the first American civilian casualty of World War I in 1917.
PROVIDING CARE DURING INFLUENZA PANDEMIC In 1918, as millions of Red Cross volunteers were already helping during World War I, the Red Cross redoubled its efforts to assist the U.S. Public Health Service and local boards of health during the influenza pandemic. Over 15,000 nurses and other workers cared for the sick. In addition, the Red Cross created local Influenza Committees, provided equipment and supplies to hospitals, set up emergency hospitals in schools and other buildings, and established convalescent houses and kitchens.
LEARN MORE For more information about our nursing history and to find volunteer nurse opportunities in your community, visit our website.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.