Sarah Sundin: WWII Nursing Part 1/3

Redwood’s Medical Edge is pleased to host historical author Sarah Sundin who has done extensive research regarding nursing during WWII.

US Army Nursing in World War II—Part 1

a-memory-between “I love this smell, don’t you?” May said.

            “Bichloride of mercury?” Ruth laughed and shook water from a pair of gloves. “Only a nurse would like this smell.”

            May rolled syringes in a pan of the blue green disinfectant. “In the orphanage I had no control over my life, but with soapy water and a stiff brush, I could scrub away the smells and pretend I lived in a castle.”

            Ruth draped the brown latex gloves over a clothesline to dry before being sterilized. “Cleanliness may not be next to godliness, but it beats back the demons of poverty.”

In my World War II novel, A Memory Between Us, the heroine, Lt. Ruth Doherty serves as a US Army Nurse in England. The amount of research seemed daunting at first, but I found fantastic resources, read intriguing real-life accounts, and gathered fascinating facts about nursing in World War II.

Combat produces injuries. Injuries require treatment. If you write a novel set during World War II, you may have to write a medical scene—and you’ll want to get the details right about your nurse characters.

During World War II, 57,000 women served in the US Army Nurse Corps (ANC), 11,000 in the Navy Nurse Corps (NNC), and 6500 in the Army Air Forces. More than two hundred nurses died serving their country.

Today I’ll cover requirements to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. On November 26th, I’ll discuss the training the nurses underwent and rank in the Army Nurse Corps. And on November 29th, I’ll provide some details on uniforms, nursing practices, and a list of my favorite resources.


To serve in the Army Nurse Corps, women had to be 21-40 years old (raised to 45 later in the war), unmarried (married nurses were accepted starting in late 1942), a high school graduate, a graduate of a 3-year nursing training program, licensed in at least one state, a US citizen or a citizen of an Allied country, 5’0”-6’0,” have a physician’s certificate of health and a letter testifying to moral and professional excellence.

Pregnancy was the main cause of discharge from the Army Nurse Corps, or as the women called it, PWOP (Pregnant WithOut Permission). To discourage pregnancy, the Army had a cumbersome process to gain approval for marriage. Other methods to prevent pregnancy included careful placement of nurses’ quarters, discouraging drinking, and encouraging the women to socialize in groups. The second main reason for discharge was “neuropsychiatric,” what we call combat fatigue nowadays.

Remember that gender and race discrimination was still rampant in the 1940s. Male nurses were not allowed in the ANC during World War II, and only a limited number of African-American nurses. Despite a large number of black registered nurses in the United States, fewer than five hundred were allowed to serve, and then only to care for black patients or for prisoners of war.

***This post originally published 11/24/2010.***

*********************************************************************************************sarahsundin2Sarah Sundin is the author of the Wings of Glory series from Revell: A Distant Melody (March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011). She has a doctorate in pharmacy from UC San Francisco and works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.

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