In Honor of Nurses Week and VA nurses, Past and Present

by the VA Public Affairs Office

Florence Nightingale. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Florence Nightingale. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

The first nurses in VA’s history were men who worked at branches of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.  In 1880, “Colonel Harris, from the committee having the compensation of hospital nurses in charge, reported and recommended that they be paid at the following rates: Two wardmasters at the Central Branch, at $15 per month, to have supervision under the post surgeons of all the wards day and night. These men should be strictly temperate, skillful, good dispositioned, intelligent and faithful. The other nurses should be divided into two classes, viz, nurses and assistant nurses. The nurses should have $8 per month for the first year, $10 per month for the second year, and $12 per month thereafter. The assistants should have $6 per month for the first six months, $7 per month for the second six months, and $8 per month thereafter.  On motion, it was resolved that the report be accepted and payment be made as recommended.”

The first nursing school in America opened at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1873 and taught Florence Nightingale’s philosophy and practices.  New nursing schools opened across the country shortly afterwards and by the early 20th century, distinctions between trained and untrained nurses emerged, leading to professionalization of the field and licensing of nurses. 

In 1890, the National Homes’ Northwestern Branch in Milwaukee became the first to hire women nurses. Colonel John L. Mitchell, manager for the National Home in Milwaukee, contracted with the Wisconsin Training School for Female Nurses to employ 10 women nurses in the homes’ hospital on a trial basis.  The Wisconsin Training School for Female Nurses opened in 1888 and its chief nurse was a graduate of the Bellevue Hospital program.  The school agreed to provide nurses who had been in training for at least 18 month at various local hospitals. None of them were married and they did not live on the grounds.  The experiment began on May 15, 1890, when the first female nurses arrived. 

On July 18, 1890 the surgeon reported that “the women nurses are doing good and faithful work and are devoted to their duties.” Col. Mitchell remarked in his annual report that:

“marked improvements had already begun to appear; the men were more careful of their appearance, habits, and conversation; they were more contented, knowing that help and skillful attendance was always at hand. . . the only apprehension expressed [by the nurses] was that the hospital would not afford the extent and variety of experience or training desired by them. . .the attention given by the nurses to the constant cleanliness and tidiness of the wards, and the cleansing and scalding of all utensils is a new feature…”

The arrangement formed one of the earliest medical affiliations at the National Homes.  After Milwaukee’s successful efforts, the remaining National Homes followed suit and by 1898 women nurses worked at all of the National Homes.

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