A Few Good Women

collective-1As Vanderbilt University School of Nursing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, the nursing profession is struggling to meet the demands of a prolonged and severe nursing and faculty shortage. Alumni from the 1940s can attest that the current shortage is not the nursing profession’s first.

In 1941, with the United States facing an acute shortage as it prepared to enter the Second World War, Vanderbilt School of Nursing became one of 88 schools to receive U.S. Public Health Service funding for nurses’ training. In 1942, 120 Vanderbilt School of Nursing graduates enlisted in the 300th General Hospital, U.S. Army Hospital.

The following year Frances Payne Bolton, a U.S. congressman from Ohio, pushed for passage of the Nurse Training Act, which established the Victory Nurse Corps, soon to be renamed the Cadet Nurse Corps. Under the terms of the act, the government would pay all expenses for nursing school plus a small stipend. In return, nurses agreed to serve in the military after graduating. By 1944, 108 of the 116 students at Vanderbilt School of Nursing were members of the Cadet Corps.

Only three American universities—Yale, Western Reserve and Vanderbilt—had baccalaureate programs in nursing at the time. Vanderbilt’s program, accelerated to help meet demand, granted nurses a baccalaureate degree after three years of study and training. Students were admitted every nine months rather than once a year.

“America was hard at war, and all citizens were trying to do their patriotic duty in whatever way they could,” remembers Ada Trice Smith, BSN’47, who grew up in Mississippi and was convinced to enroll at Vanderbilt by an older friend.

“Two of my Tupelo friends who were medical students at Vandy arrived and loaded me and my bulging suitcases into the car. We headed north to a world that was completely new to me. As we approached Nashville, it seemed the city was covered by a gray foggy pall. I had heard about the smog caused by the burning of soft coal, but this was beyond my imagination.”

Nursing students lived, studied and took their classes in Mary Kirkland Hall (now Godchaux Hall), except for laboratory classes, which were taught at the medical school.“This limited our contact with other students on the campus,” recalls Beth Winchester Isaacs, BSN’47, “but we really had very little time to meet other students or participate in the activities on campus.”

Above: World War II-era nurses with the 300th General Hospital, U.S. Army Hospital.

World War II-era nurses with the 300th General Hospital, U.S. Army Hospital.

Entering students were not fresh out of high school; they had had at least two years of college elsewhere before applying to nursing school. First-semester nurses took 25 hours of courses per week in the accelerated Vanderbilt program.

The Vanderbilt nursing program emphasized preventive health care and provided a student rotation at the rural health department in nearby Rutherford County. In their snappy cadet uniforms—gray wool with brass buttons, red epaulets and nifty berets—the nurses would set off toward Murfreesboro, Tenn., in one of the school’s black Fords.

“We were each assigned a car and road directions and a brown-bag lunch—usually pimento cheese sandwiches, cottage cheese and raisins,” remembers Ann Moore Crain, BSN’47. “Each car had a distinct personality. The one I dreaded the most had a huge hole in the floorboard between the clutch pedal and the gas pedal.”

Driving through a creek on the way to Murfreesboro required “one foot on the brake, one foot on the choke, one foot on the gas, and one foot to cover the hole in the floor,” remembers Crain. “That was a good lesson in problem solving.”

“As we neared our final destinations, it wasn’t uncommon to read directions like ‘turn at this tree, take a right at the old mailbox,’” says Virginia George, BSN’47 and a professor emerita. “I remember having to crawl over a fence and run across a pasture to get to one house.”

Fences and creeks were nothing compared to the scene one fellow student encountered, Crain recalls. “She made a home visit to a rural home and found the mother and her children huddled in a panic. A skunk was under the house. She calmly asked if they had a gun. They handed it to her, she located the skunk, and she shot the skunk before the skunk could shoot her. She returned the gun and proceeded with her visit.”


Nursing students set out for Rutherford County to conduct home health visits.

Isaacs remembers another occasion when a group of nurses stalled their car on railroad tracks and were rescued by men from a nearby cleaning shop who pushed the car off the tracks before a train came.

In good weather, nursing students frequently enjoyed a picnic before returning to Nashville. On one such occasion, “whoever was driving the car failed to set the brakes properly, and the car rolled toward the river,” says Isaacs. “One of the girls was fast enough to turn the wheel, and the car was stopped by a fence post. That seemed to put a damper on picnics.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, misadventures like these, nurses remember the public health rotation as one of their most gratifying experiences. “It was exhilarating to think that I could provide useful health information to a family,” says Nancy Ragsdale Gilien, BSN’47, who spent most of her subsequent career in public health nursing. “Those tolerant people always listened politely, and I was sure in those days that I had probably saved them from some significant health-care blunder.”

Nursing students also conducted surveys and were taught leadership as part of being a “whole” nurse, remembers Iola McClellan Manoogian, BSN’47. Because of the war, “at times it was difficult to get supplies, so we were taught to improvise and use what we had,” she says. That experience proved invaluable to nurses like Manoogian, who went on to work in a small mission hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, where she started a nursing school and taught for 30 years.

“We had a tight group of students who became more like family than classmates,” observes Virginia George. “It was a hard program, and there was a lot going on with the war at the time. We started with 40 students, and 29 graduated.”

“We were part of the university but also set apart,” says Smith. “The medical school faculty—from Dr. Billy Orr, who always wore a bow tie and called everybody ‘cousin,’ to Dr. Barney Brooks, who scared us all to death, to our own nursing school faculty—all molded and inspired us.”

Both Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, bringing the war to a close. The U.S. Cadet Nursing Corps program graduated its last students in 1948. By then Vanderbilt School of Nursing had expanded its public health program and forged an agreement with the Veterans Administration hospital in Murfreesboro to develop its psychiatric nursing program.

Vanderbilt School of Nursing would continue to evolve in the postwar years, launching a new four-year B.S.N. program in 1950, the state’s first master of science degree in 1955, a new Ph.D. program in 1993, and a new doctorate in nursing practice in 2008. The school granted its last baccalaureate degree in 1989. Today most students earn an M.S.N. degree­­.

The changes engendered by World War II helped to expand opportunities for women and alter nursing education irrevocably. Vanderbilt University School of Nursing’s emphasis on public health has not waned. The school opened the Vine Hill Clinic in a Nashville public housing complex in 1991 and now operates satellite clinics in three other public housing complexes, as well as a senior center.

Vanderbilt School of Nursing’s Centennial Web site, which provided most of the material for this article, offers more history and photos of the school.

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  • Anne Kakos

    Contact your Congressional Representatives to pass legislation to officially recognized the United States Cadet Nurse Corps members as “these United States Veterans of WWII”. Start with HR 1522 then contact the Senate for a “companion Bill.Thanks