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Extracts From An Article Entitled "Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee And What She Has Done For The Nursing Profession," By Dita H. Kinney, Printed in The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, March 1901.

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

Special Issue, History and Manual of the Army Nurse Corps THE ARMY MEDICAL BULLETIN, NUMBER 41, 1 OCTOBER 1937


Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee was born at Washington, D. C., on November 4, 1864, daughter of Professor and Mrs. Simon Newcomb.  She was educated in the private schools of her native city going later on to Europe, where she took private courses at Newham College, England, and in Geneva, Switzerland.  Three years thus passed in study.  After her return she married, in 1888, Professor W. J. McGee, a scientist in charge of the Bureau of American Ethnology.  Mrs. McGee took up the study of her profession in the Medical Department of Columbian University, Washington, taking her degree in 1892, and supplementing this with a post graduate course in gynecology at Johns Hopkins University.  She afterwards built up a large practice in her own city.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the office of The Surgeon General of the United States Army was deluged with applications from all sorts and conditions of women, offering their services as nurses to the sick and wounded in camp, field and hospital.  In the tremendous rush of work suddenly thrust on this bureau, which it was wholly unprepared to meet, it was impossible to do other than acknowledge these applications as follows:

“Madam:  In reply to your letter I am directed by The Surgeon General to inform you that there is no authority for the employment of nurses, nor are they likely to be required, as we have a regularly organized hospital corps ready for this duty.  Very respectfully, etc.”

Yet strange as it may seem, within a few days after the last of these letters was sent the War Department called upon the hospital corps of the D. A. R. to send four nurses to Key West, Florida.

The clerical force of The Surgeon General’s Office was inadequate, and so wholly unfamiliar with the suitability and qualifications of applicants as to be unable to investigate and pass on their applications.  Even had they known such work, the organization of a new activity at this busy time was not to be thought of.   It was at this critical moment that the genius of Dr. McGee


came to the rescue.  She evolved the plan of taking the whole matter into the hands of the D. A. R. and submitted it to the Surgeons General of both the Army and the Navy, winning their instant approval and gratitude; and eventually gaining for herself the unique distinction of being the only female acting assistant surgeon in the United States Army at this time.

It takes genius to break new roads, to show the work-a-day world new paths.  It is a little less than the same God-given attribute that sees an opportunity and seizes it at exactly the right moment.  It was this that Dr. McGee did.  No better account of how she did it and what was accomplished thereby can be given than that found in her own reports to the D. A. R., June and September 1898.  At the time of the first report, June 28, 1898, the work was in its infancy.

“At the April meeting of the National Board of the Daughters the question of what the Daughters should do in the war was naturally prominent.  I had the honor at that time of presenting the plan for a hospital corps, which as originally conceived was in the form of a body of trained nurses who should be ready to answer a call from The Surgeon General for service in the army or navy and which should be thoroughly endorsed by the D. A. R.  That plan was, on consultation with the officials, afterward enlarged by the proposal that we should undertake the examination of all applications which were received from women for hospital positions. At that time The Surgeon General had been overwhelmed with applications, which had been responded to in a formal way and placed on file, without any means of examining into the qualificationS of the applicants or making use of their offers of service.  They therefore welcomed heartily the extended proposal made by the Daughters, and turned over to our society every application, no matter to whom originally addressed.

“At the outbreak of the war The Surgeon General of the Army had at his command a corps of hospital stewards numbering nearly 800 men and assistants; the Surgeon General of the Navy had no such corps.  It will be seen that the need of assistants in the field seems to be met by the army corps of men now enlarged to a war basis.  In hospitals, however, the skilled assistance of trained women nurses is needed.


“This responsibility in the hands of the Daughters is, I think, quite a unique matter.  This recognition by the Government is something of which we had every reason to be very proud indeed.  I have received up to the present time (June 28) applications to the number of 2,500.  The majority are from untrained women who offer from patrotic motives.  They have been sent to the President of the United States, Secretaries of War and Navy, Surgeons General, Senators, members of Congress, officials of the Treasury, all reaching ultimately the office of the Daughters.  The work of examining these, as you can imagine, has been no easy one, especially as we began when there were 1,100 received, which we had to take in bulk.  I am happy to say the work for the last two or three weeks has been quite up to date.  I counted my mail the other day, and one envelope contained thirty applications from the War Department--in addition to that there were forty-six letters, either with applications or returned blanks or indorsements.  This was simply one mail.

“When an application is received which gives some promise of being from a person who knows something about nursing we send her a small blank.  The requirements printed at the head of some of our letters are those suggested by The Surgeon General of the Army.  He specified in a general way what he wanted.  The age requirement he does not insist upon absolutely.  The matter of keeping up the standard depends entirely upon the number of applicants and the number appointed.  As long as applicants who are suitable number by the hundreds and the appointments number by the ones, of course I feel obliged to keep rather closely to the highest requirements.  The Surgeon General has given me strict injunctions that all parts of the country are to be represented, and naturally those who have had yellow fever are preferred for Southern hospitals.  In selecting applicants my rule has been to take those who have in the first place come well indorsed, and whose hospital records are good.  Then I prefer those who have the indorsement from Daughters who know them. Then those recommended by the schools from which they graduated, and I have established a regular method of writing to the superintendents of every school to get all possible information.

“Of course it is impossible at the present time to make any statement as to how many will be called or where they will go, and


I am therefore unable to state whether any particular applicant is accepted or not. I  cannot decide until the call comes; then I look over all and select according to the fullest knowledge I have at the time”.

Thus wrote this indefatigable woman, at the time when the real rush of the work was still before her.  Hear her once more, in September of the same year:

“The D. A. R. hospital corps has the honor to report that its work has grown and multiplied to an extent far beyond what was considered probable.  The first nurses sent were viewed in the light of an experiment, and much depended on the record which they should make.  To the lasting gratification, not only to the D. A. R., but of womenkind in general, we are proud to record that the nurses whom we first selected proved themselves fully worthy of the trust imposed on them, and fit co-workers with the brave men whose names are entered on the roll of honor of the army. The inevitable results of their noble work was the ever increasing demand from army hospitals for trained women nurses, and the decision which has now been reached on every hand, that satisfactory hospital work, without such nurses, is almost impossible.  Some fifty times has The Surgeon General of the Army called on the D. A. R. hospital corps to designate suitable nurses for some specified duty, and these calls, originally for about half a dozen persons each time, increased to as many as 150 nurses in a single order.  The total number thus appointed is in the neighborhood of 1,000 nurses—a regiment of women.  As is already known to you, all applications from women addressed to the War Department were forwarded to us for examination, and all but the earliest received at the Navy Department were also forwarded.  In addition to these, hosts of applicants wrote or applied in person to us until the total number we examined rose to about 4,600.  Realizing, as we fully did, that there was a great principle at stake, we exercised the greatest care in the preparation of our list of eligible women.  First of all, the candidate must be of irreproachable character and suitable age.  Second, she must possess good health.  Third, she must have the training which is all essential to the successful prosecution of her work.  This last requisite is one that recent progress has made not only possible, but an absolute necessity, to secure the best results, and we feel


that the one safe policy—safe above all to the sick soldiers—was to demand actual graduation from training school.”

I have quoted at length in order that it might be clearly understood how carefully the method of procedure had been thought out, with what infinite pains the work, though yet in its infancy, was carried on.  When we take into consideration the exigencies of the time, the sudden demand and the urgent need, admitting of no delay, it seems scarcely less than a miracle that so few of the nurses sent showed themselves unworthy of their high calling.

On August 29th The Surgeon General sent for Dr. McGee, offered her an appointment as acting assistant surgeon in the United States Army, and a detail to go to New York.  He asked how soon she could leave. Her reply was entirely characteristic: “By the next train”.  The oath was administered then and there and she was instructed to proceed at once on her journey, secure the services of thirty nurses and start them off inside of two days for Puerto Rico.  Within the specified time twenty-three of the nurses were on their way.

The Surgeon General finding the work had assumed such size and importance, suggested that Dr. McGee remove her headquarters to his office and make it in point of location, as it was in fact, a branch of his department.  This was done. On September 15 there were 1,200 nurses employed in the army.  The number of applicants passed upon and classified, up to the same date, reached close to 6,000.

The brilliancy of the results up to this time overshadowed the cost of the achievement, the strain—mental, physical and nervous, the discomfort and difficulty of protracted effort in the debilitating heat of a Washington summer.  From early morning often till eleven o’clock at night she was at her desk—never a word of complaint, ready for any and all the demands made upon her, verily this is the stuff of which heroes are made.  And here I note, with all humiliation and chagrin, that in all this time of stress, no organized body of nurses, as such, gave any assistance worth the mentioning.  Individuals came to the front and bore sometimes more than their share of the burden, but they planned no system of aid in other ways than as units.  It appeals to us now with all the hopeless regret of a lost opportunity.


After the close of the war the number of nurses in the service was gradually reduced, until today there are, with the “reserves” nearly 250.  The excitement now was over, the inspiration of struggle and victory gone.  Things settled down into the drudgery of daily routine, the monotony of ordinary business life, all the more keenly felt because of the sharp contrast to the days just passed.  There were old records to be straightened out, order out of chaos, arranging, planning the Army Nurse Corps on a practical basis.

So Dr. McGee worked on, often maligned, misrepresented, and misunderstood, weary, far from well and longing to be relieved.  She knew however, that the scheme was yet too imperfectly developed to trust in strange hands.  Indeed there were none in which to place it.  The necessity to have a woman at the head was too obvious to admit of discussion.  As yet there was no position to offer any one capable of doing the work.  The doctor was there, an acting assistant suurgeon, the only woman holding such a commission.  What nurse was there in any way fitted for the place, who would have sacrificed to cast her lot with the Nurse Corps and its uncertain future?  Dr. McGee did not falter or stop. S he studied out and perfected plans, the method of selecting applicants, and still more completely systematized the Corps office until today it is a model one.  There all that concerns each nurse who has ever served, her place of duty, change of location, efficiency, health, can be found, alphabetically “jacketed” and filed.  Each hospital has its record, the names of nurses serving there and the dates of transfer from one point to another. In another place can be found, under each State, alphabetically filed, all obtainable printed information concerning civil hospitals, and the training schools connected with them.  Books of reference relating to the management of the Nurse Corps in foreign armies, while files of all the best medical and nursing journals of the world can be reached at any moment.

The Army “Reorganization Bill” is before Congress, with a section for the Nurse Corps (Sect. 19, Act of Feb. 2, 1901, Par. 31 Stat. 753), grafting it on the Medical Department of the United States Army.  Provision is made for, a Superintendent, a graduate nurse, at its head, for the appointment of nurses under more favorable conditions than exist at present, their pay, perquisites;


in fact, everything necessary to the life and successful continuance and permanence of the Corps. All this is pre-eminently the work of Dr. McGee.  It was she who offered the solution of the difficult problem of how nurses could be a practical help in the hour of the country’s need; and, more than this, the plan was formulated “out of hand”, so to speak, as there was no time for mature consideration.  It was she who thought out what could be done and did it.  It was she who worked on through many months to put the Corps on a safe and lasting basis, and it was she “who being reviled, reviled not again”.  It was she who, having accomplished all this, hands it over to the nursing profession.

There can be no doubt that the Nurse Corps, properly managed, has a great future. Time alone can show what we, as a profession, will do with this magnificient legacy, with all its great possibilities, which she has bequeathed to us.

It is impossible to contemplate thus the work of this remarkable woman and not feel that she was the personification of the ‘spirit of ‘76’’, a worthy daughter of the American Revolution, “whose ancestors counted personal ease of little worth, when weighed in the balance of their country’s need”.

Comments by Dr. McGee on the Article by Dita H. Kinney:

This very flowery and rather extravagant eulogy does contain many facts.  I recognized years ago that I made a great mistake in not suggesting an official appointment at the beginning of the work, and doing the whole thing without reference to any organization.  But. I was then Vice President General of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and began thinking about the war from the point of view of the work of that organization.  Had I been an army official from the start it would have, I think, prevented to some extent the attempts of women in New York and some other places to get control of nursing in the army.  As you know, some nurses were misled by the newspaper publicity given the so-called Red Cross nurses, which resulted in not having army contracts, to their great regret later.  I was far too modest in those days to seek any publicity for myself or for what I was doing: that was the second great mistake I made.  In those days the War Department


ment had no publicity bureaus such as it had during the World War, and like the army in general, I simply went about my business with no thought of the public.  However, there was a decided advantage in the D. A. R. connection ; first, because I had the use of several large rooms in an office building to which some of the Daughters came every day to offer help.  It was they who read letters from applicants and replied by circular letters written and signed by me, choosing the applicant according to whether or not the letter indicated nurse training.  I know of no other way in which this preliminary sorting could have been done had I been obliged to depend upon the slow-working government methods and the shortage of clerks.  Throughout the country also the help rendered by D. A. R. members was highly useful in our work of selecting army nurses. The work, of what I then called the D. A. R. “Hospital Corps”, was strictly limited to this field, since once the nurse was appointed she had no further connection with the D. A. R.  So I am sure that, although the D. A. R. connection was a disadvantage externally, it was a great advantage in the office.

When I wrote into the Reorganization Act (Sect. 19, Act of Feb. 2, 1901) that the nurse corps should consist of a superintendent, chief nurses, nurses and reserve nurses, I think no one had previously proposed the idea of reserve officers, now so general.  I did, in fact, issue appointments as reserve nurses to a number of women with excellent army records; but the prospect of another war was so remote, the clerical force so small, that that plan was soon abandoned.  And here I may mention my great surprise when the Secretary of War announced recognition of the Red Cross nursing service as “the reserve” of the army which was, of course, the correct thing for him to do; but the term did not in any way make the individual nurse enrolled with the Red Cross a reserve nurse and member of the Army Nurse Corps as provided in the 1901 Act.  I hope my point is clear: that to name an organization or large group of women as constituting the reserve does not come within the scope of the law which authorizes individuals to be “reserve nurses”.  Instead of issuing the transfers to active service, which we issued in the World War, it should have been preceded, or at least accomplished, by appointments as reserve nurse.  It is certainly a


late day to be calling attention to this, but the Manual causes me to write about it.

Mrs. Kinney refers to new conditions to be met after the passage of the Reorganization Act.  As it turned out, I have always understood that no changes were made in the Corps except one that I had recommended to her; viz.; that appointment as chief nurse should be made only after written examination had been held.  Of course the form of appointment was changed from that of a contract to that of a paper showing appointment by The Surgeon General, and also of course the military status of the Corps was acknowledged legally.  Years later I secured by Act of Congress the same military status for the original Nurse Corps as that enjoyed by the later members.

I think I have not published anywhere the following interesting fact.  Colonel Greenleaf, Chief Surgeon in Puerto Rico, was strongly opposed to women nurses in the field.  About the end of July (1898) he cabled a request for male nurses.  When The Surgeon General said in reply that there were none to be had, and should he send female nurses, the Colonel refused the offer.  A month later he cabled asking that thirty female nurses be sent.  That cable was received by The Surgeon General August 29th.  Of the first cable I knew nothing and was greatly surprised when in 1899 I attended a public meeting in Baltimore during an agitation for the passage of an absurd bill creating a Nurse Corps which would be superior to the Medical Corps, and heard Miss Margaret Chandler argue that The Surgeon General had refused to send “nurses” when Colonel Greenleaf requested them, thus proving The Surgeon General’s utter incompetence and, by implication, my own.  The second cable accepting female nurses was the immediate cause of my official appointment with orders to New York that Monday, August 29th, to arrange for the sailing of nurses on a transport leaving for Puerto Rico Wednesday noon.  Arriving in New York I found the transport booked to capacity and it was a difficult task to put through the substitution of nurses for other military personnel; but thirty nurses did sail.  This is a typical example of the misunderstandings which underlaid much of the criticism of the Medical Department at that time.


The bill mentioned above was the one which failed of passage in the House of Representatives and at the next session was buried in the Senate Military Affairs Committee.  This bill was sponsored by Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, of New York, and many prominent nurses who knew nothing of the army, aided by a paid lobbyist; but the prejudice against women in the army, combined with the impracticable nature of the bill, made it easy for me to defeat it.  All legislation relating to nurses was left in my hands by The Surgeon General during my term of office.  Some of these same nurses, years later, admitted to me their mistake.  For instance, Miss Dock, when writing the history of Red Cross nursing, consulted me on a few points and said that the experience of the World War had shown that I was the one during the Spanish-American War time who was right and who had the vision, and that their attitude towards the control of army nursing had been a mistake.  You see my modesty has quite disappeared.  However, in this history the story of Spanish-American War nursing is so presented as to be highly misleading.

Anita Newcomb McGee
Southern Pines, N. C.
April 28, 1937