First nurses in VA’s history – in honor of Nurses Week

In 1890, VHA’s predecessor–the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers–hired its first women nurses at the Northwestern Branch in Milwaukee (known today as the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center).

Able-bodied men who were residents of the National Homes served as wardmasters, nurses, and assistant nurses prior to 1890. An 1880 National Home board of managers report recommended that two wardmasters be paid $15 per month and have supervision of all wards–day and night–under supervision of the post surgeons. “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.” The National Home veteran population was approaching old age by 1900, so a solution to replace them as nurses was sought.

The nursing profession in America was in its infancy after the Civil War. Hundreds of women had served as nurses during the war, but most had no formal training. The first nursing school in America opened at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1873 and taught Florence Nightingale’s philosophy and practices of nursing care. New nursing schools opened up across the country afterwards.
In 1888 the Wisconsin Training School for Female Nurses was opened by Miss Melrose, a graduate of the Bellevue Hospital nursing program. Two years later, Colonel John L. Mitchell, manager of the National Home branch in Milwaukee, contracted with the school to employ 10 women nurses in the homes’ hospital as an experiment. The school agreed to provide nurses who had been in training for at least 18 months. None of the nurses were married and they did not live on the grounds. The experiment at Milwaukee began when the nurses arrived on May 15, 1890.


On July 18, 1890, the Home’s surgeon reported that “the women nurses are doing good and faithful work and are devoted to their duties.” Colonel Mitchell remarked about the experiment’s success in the annual report that year:

“. . .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 express [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 between the Wisconsin Training School for Female Nurses was the earliest medical affiliation at the National Homes. After the resounding success of Milwaukee’s experiment, the remaining National Homes followed suit and by 1898 women nurses were employed at all of the National Homes.

Courtesy: VA Historian

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