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Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee (1864-1940) — A Brief Biography

Army Nurse Corps Home > Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee: Founder of the Army Nurse Corps

Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee fostered the establishment of the organization which was to become the nation’s first military and the first all-graduate nursing service of its size.  Throughout her life she challenged women to assume a stronger intellectual role and personified that ideal through her many scholarly works and executive positions in scientific, anthropological and service organizations throughout the country. The Army Nurse Corps is the living legacy of this non-nurse pioneer of Army nursing.

Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee

Anita Newcomb was born on 4 November 1864 in Washington, D.C., to Simon and Mary Caroline (Hassler) Newcomb. Her father, a graduate of Harvard University, was a noted astronomer and mathematician. Of German and English descent, he spent his earliest years in Nova Scotia where his father was schoolmaster. Mary Caroline (Hassler), also a strong intellectual influence, was a granddaughter of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, founder and first superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. The Newcombs had three daughters. Young Anita was educated in private schools in Washington, D.C. She later traveled for three years in Europe during which time she took courses at Newham College in Cambridge and at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

In 1892 she graduated from Columbian University (now George Washington University) in Washington, D.C., with a degree in medicine. She followed this with post-graduate study in gynecology at School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. During the next four years she maintained an active medical practice in Washington, DC.

On St. Valentine’s Day in 1888, Ms. Newcomb wed Dr. WJ McGee, Geologist-in-Charge of the Atlantic Coastal Plain Division of the U.S. Geological Survey. She participated with him on a geologic survey of the country shortly after their marriage. WJ McGee left geology in 1903 to join the Bureau of American Ethnology, later becoming Ethnologist-in-Charge with that organization. For a two-year period he headed the Department of Anthropology at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 after which he was director of the St. Louis Public Museum before returning to Washington to become Vice-Chairman and Secretary of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1907.

The McGee’s oldest child, Klotho, was born in 1889 and was primarily raised by a private nurse. Her brother Donald died of meningitis at 9 months. The youngest boy, Eric Newcomb, was born in 1902. In 1915, Klotho married David Madison Willis and lived in San Francisco where they raised their two children.

Anita Newcomb McGee always possessed a profound interest in scholarly subjects, but her drive toward intellectual challenge was increasingly evident upon her return following studies in Europe. She studied and wrote on subjects related to genealogy and history and was published in Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography. For a time her attention centered on a genealogical study of the descendants of John Bull, a colorful figure of the Revolutionary period. A group of “intellectual women,” as described in an article by Anita McGee later, formed a society in 1885 called “The Women’s Anthropological Society of America.” In 1889, Ms. McGee served as its recording secretary. She presented a paper to this group describing the evolution of the Shaker-community. By her own description, it “followed the development of a religious body from its origin in Germany through various stages to its present state as the most successful communistic organization in America.” Publication of this study achieved for her a position of renown.

Dr. McGee’s medical practice from 1892-1896 was described as thriving, albeit short-lived. She left active practice in 1896 to return to her first love, original research. But it was her executive skill that most influenced the future direction of her career.  Active in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Dr. McGee served from 1894 to 1898 respectively as its Surgeon-General, Librarian-General, Vice President-General and, later, Historian-General. While relations between the United States and Spain threatened war, Vice President-General Dr. McGee charted a new course for herself and professional nursing. This course arose out of her long standing conviction that women possessed unrecognized and often unrealized intellectual potential. Over the next two years she challenged custom to prove her conviction.

Since 1 March 1885, years before the war with Spain, The Surgeon General of the U.S. Army endeavored to obviate the need for female nurses to support the military services by establishing and training a Hospital Corps of enlisted medics. When hostilities began in April 1898, the Army continued to believe that this Hospital Corps would meet its needs. Even so, hundreds of women wrote to offer their services as nurses to the Army and Navy. With foresight, Dr. McGee suggested to the DAR that it should develop a Hospital Corps. Defined differently from the Army’s Hospital Corps, this would be a body of trained nurses ready to answer the call to service. The DAR rallied behind Dr. McGee’s proposal and appointed her Director, DAR Hospital Corps (DARHC). An epidemic of yellow fever invaded the Army’s hastily constructed training camps and marshalling areas in the south and greatly intensified the need for hospital services. The Surgeon Generals of both the Army and Navy readily accepted the DAR’s offer and enlarged it’s scope from developing a body of trained nurses to full responsibility for examining all applicants and selecting those who would serve when called. In August 1898, Brigadier General George M. Sternberg, The Surgeon General, appointed Dr. McGee as an Acting Assistant Surgeon in the U. S. Army, the only woman at that time to hold such a position. He placed her “in charge” of the Army Nurse Corps.

Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee during the Spanish-American War (1898)

The Surgeon General immediately requisitioned the first group of 30 nurses. Twenty-three who were found to be qualified and ready to serve immediately departed for Puerto Rico. Dr. McGee’s insistence upon accepting only hospital-trained, and well-referenced nurses placed stringent limitations on the number of nurses eligible to serve in the Corps. At the same time, it established a standard for safe, skilled nursing practice. Within slightly over two weeks, 1200 nurses were on duty in the Army.

The DAR and Dr. McGee were not the sole source of nurses for the Army. The nursing professional organization, the Associated Alumnae of Trained Nurses of the United States and Canada (AATN), also offered to assist in the procurement of nurses. Their proposal reached The Surgeon General after he had accepted the DAR’s offer. Because the American Red Cross was troubled with organizational problems, The Surgeon General hesitated to accept Red Cross assistance, but eventually both it and the Associated Alumnae would become involved in the process of supplying nurses. Even so, the initial move to utilize the DAR created ill will between the organizations.

The volunteer organization of the DAR assisted in the gargantuan task of examining thousands of applicants. In September The Surgeon General transferred this function to the War Department. Dr. McGee served throughout the brief war, and in the year following it, screening women volunteers for hospital service. Upon the war’s conclusion she directed her attention also to winning support for the concept of a permanently established nurse corps for service to the Army. As early as 7 November 1898, The Surgeon General issued the first rules related to a corps of nurses. Further progress was slow because of the general postwar turmoil in the military services. Dr. McGee continued to shape the nurse corps by setting and maintaining standards for qualification of nurses and their organization.

The permanent existence of a nurse corps required Congressional action. The professional nursing organizations were the first to present a bill in Congress to establish a nurse corps. Although well-intended, the bill was flawed in many areas. It did not establish a minimum size for the corps that would insure its existence in peacetime. It also failed to mandate funding for the corps. Dr. McGee objected to the bill not only on these counts, but also because of its provision that the organization exist outside the umbrella of the Medical Department as an autonomous nurse corps led by a Superintendent who was a trained nurse. In Dr. McGee’s eyes, the bill was only a “diversion” that delayed the permanent establishment of a nurse corps.

At the request of The Surgeon General, Dr. McGee drafted Section 19 of the Army Reorganization Bill which would establish an Army Nurse Corps. Over Dr. McGee’s objections, it was amended to stipulate that the Superintendent of the Nurse Corps would be a graduate nurse. After selecting her deputy, Ms. Dita Hopkins Kinney, as her successor, Dr. McGee resigned at the end of December 1900 when the bill’s passage appeared to be assured. On 2 February 1901, The President signed the Army Reorganization Act that restructured the U.S. Army and created the Army Nurse Corps.

Although Dr. McGee left government service, she continued to fight for the rights and privileges of the women who served as nurses during the Spanish-American war. Their contract status deprived them of veteran’s benefits, including disability pay, pension, and health care. She founded the Society of Spanish-American War Nurses in 1898 and served as its president for six years. She kept close contact with the nurse veterans and when war threatened between Russia and Japan in 1904, she offered her organization’s assistance to the Japanese. With a group of trained nurses, she voluntarily served the Japanese Army for six months. The Japanese Minister of War appointed Dr. McGee “Superior of Nurses,” giving her rank on par with officers in the Japanese Army.  She later served as a military medical attaché and observer with the Japanese Army in Manchuria during 1905.

Dr. McGee and the American Nurses at the Military Reserve Hospital, Hirsohima, Japan, 1904

Following her return to the United States, Dr. McGee continued her studies in eugenics, lecturing on a variety of subjects, including the status of women. She also lectured on hygiene at the University of California. Through most of this period she lived in her homes in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Southern Pines, North Carolina, and in California with her daughter. Her son attended private schools. Dr. WJ McGee remained in positions in St. Louis and later Washington, D.C., succumbing to prostate cancer in 1912.

Dr. McGee’s son’s education consumed much of her attention from this time until he died in 1930. Her correspondence is filled with letters from school directors and professors responding to her voluminous inquiries and discussions pondering his failure to succeed. Eric’s correspondence professes his love for her and his intention to try harder and to do better. Eric died in 1930 at 28 in an unexplained accident.

Dr. McGee received the Spanish War medal for her services during the Spanish-American War. For her work in Japan she was awarded the Japanese Imperial Order of the Sacred Crown, The Japanese Red Cross decoration and two Russo-Japanese War medals from the Japanese government.

Dr. McGee

Anita Newcomb McGee died 5 October 1940 in a Washington, D.C., nursing home after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. With full military honors she was buried beside her father in Arlington National Cemetery.

Dr. McGee left a heritage of public service and uncommon executive achievement. She set high standards for herself and “her nurses,” showing the foresight and tenacity to require and maintain standards of training and character for an Army nursing career.


Cindy Gurney, COL, AN, Retired
Formerly, Army Nurse Corps Historian