When studying the past, it is tempting to see history as shaped by the very large things that happen, such as natural disasters or pandemic illnesses, economic collapse, and war. It is often too easy to overlook the smaller things that were also part of a very large thing and which may have had a great impact on individual lives over time.
By anyone’s reckoning, the early to mid-twentieth century was marked with a series of momentous happenings: World War I and a world-wide influenza pandemic, followed by the Great Depression and World War II. Those who lived through these times are honored as The Greatest Generation. My parents were a part of that generation. Dad was a medic in the United States Army during the War, later transferring service and retiring from the U.S. Air Force, and my mother was a member of the Cadet Nurse Corps.
The Cadet Nurse Corps was established by Congress in June 1943 and became law with President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature on July 1 of that year. At the time, there was a serious shortage of Registered Nurses in the United States due to the War. The government hoped to increase the number of nurses working in civilian and federal hospitals and therefore created a program to assist them: the Cadet Nurse Corps. All nursing students in the Corps received free tuition, books, uniforms (more about the uniforms later) and a small stipend. As my late mother, Betty L. Taylor, R.N., recalled, to be accepted to the program, a girl had to have graduated from high school with a B+ average, be of “good character,” and be willing to work as a nurse until the end of the war. (Women from 17 to 35 who met these criteria were eligible.) Additionally, nursing schools accepting the Cadet Nurses had to be accredited by the American College of Surgeons and agree to provide housing and health services for their students as well as a good grounding in pediatrics, obstetrics, medicine and surgery. My mother, chose to attend nursing school at what was then Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Corps was the first integrated uniformed service corps in the nation. Nursing schools in the Cadet Nurse Program could not, by law, discriminate on the basis of race, color or creed. Which, I suppose, is how Mom, born and raised a Methodist in a German-American community in Southern Illinois, was accepted into a Jewish hospital school of nursing. Actually, there was only one Jewish graduate in mom’s 1947 graduating class: Fanny Rothberg. My mother’s roommate and best friend was Jenny Kelly, a red-haired Irish-Catholic.
What was traditionally a 36 month program was condensed to 30 months to get these new nurses ready to work in hospitals around the country. And they were truly ready. When they weren’t in the classroom, the students at Jewish Hospital also worked as nurses on the floor. There were so few RNs available in St. Louis during the War that at night Jewish Hospital had only a single Registered Nurse for the entire large, inner-city hospital. The students did everything. When they graduated, they had already had three years’ experience in bed-side nursing, surgical assist and other duties and were ready for the many jobs awaiting them. In fact by 1945, Cadet Nurse Corps graduates were providing 80% of the nursing care in U.S. hospitals.
As I mentioned earlier, the government provided the students with uniforms. When on duty, the students at Jewish hospital had blue and white striped uniform dresses with the US Public Health Service logo on the sleeve. For practicality, these dresses were covered with a heavily starched white apron. In fact the aprons were so heavily starched that late one night while on duty by herself, Mom kept hearing someone following her down the ward’s hall. Turns out, it was her apron snapping against her legs! When off duty, the Cadets wore a military-style grey uniform including white blouse, summer and winter suits, overcoat, raincoat, hat and handbag. All were decorated with the insignia of the Public Health Service.
The story of the Cadet Nurse Corps is, as you might expect, dear to my heart because my mother was a Cadet Nurse. Some of you may have known her. In fact, if you were born in Coffee County between 1964 and 1990, it is likely that she administered at least some of your childhood vaccinations. Or gave you eye tests or hearing tests. Or weighed and measured you to see if you were growing well. She was a Public Health Nurse in Coffee County during that time and truly loved her work. I am proud to say that an entire generation of children in our county did not contract polio or many of other communicable diseases because of the work of my mother and her colleagues.
During a time when our nation was fighting a war on two fronts, “Rosie the Riveters” were turning out ships and airplanes at an astonishing rate, and everyone was enduring rationing, scrap drives and shortages, a group of young women were quietly studying and learning how to care for the sick and injured. A monument in their honor in Eisenhower Memorial Plaza, East Meadow, New York says it best: “They saved lives at home, so others could save lives abroad.”
For more information, see uscadetnurse.org.