The ‘Sacred 20’ Launched
U.S. Navy Nurse Corps
By DAVID F. WINKLER
For many, the Great White Fleet is one of President
Theodore Roosevelt’s greatest naval legacies.
Another, significant to millions of Sailors who have
benefited from Navy medical care, is the Navy Nurse
Corps. On May 13, 1908, Roosevelt signed the Naval
Appropriations Bill authorizing the recruitment of
women to serve as Navy nurses.
Even before this bill was signed, the Navy employed
women to care for sick or wounded personnel. In April
1862, during the Civil War, the Confederate river steamer Red Rover was captured by Union forces on the Mississippi River. The steamer was commissioned USS Red
Rover on Dec. 26, 1862, as the Navy’s first hospital ship.
The ship’s medical department included three nuns from
Sisters of the Holy Cross. This Catholic order provided a
handful of nuns throughout the Civil War as the steamer transported soldiers from both sides away from the
frontlines to Union hospitals in the north.
In contrast, the Army employed approximately 9,000
women in its 200 field and permanent hospitals. Serving
under harsh conditions, these women proved their mettle. And when the Spanish-American War began in
1898, the Army did not hesitate to contract 1,563
women to tend to the sick and wounded. Some of those
women served on a passenger liner that was acquired by
the Army to serve as the oceangoing hospital ship Relief.
One was Esther V. Hasson, a recent graduate of the
Connecticut Training School for Nurses.
Meanwhile, at naval hospitals at Brooklyn, N.Y.;
Norfolk, Va.; and Portsmouth, N.H., female nurse volunteers tended to both Spanish and American casualties.
Impressed by the performance of female caregivers,
the Army decided to institutionalize this support component and formed the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
At the same time, Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm.
Presley Marion Rixey saw the need for a Navy Nurse
Corps. But despite it being the “Progressive Era,” Rixey
found that Congress resisted the notion of bringing
women into the naval service. Many Congressmen
were reacting to the concerns of Navy Hospital
Corpsmen who feared the prospect of women bossing
them around while others did not want to be seen as
giving in to the demands of suffragettes.
In February 1908, after several years of frustration,
Rixey documented that a shortage of 250 male nurses in
the Navy’s Hospital Corps had contributed to unnecessary
U.S. NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
The captured Confederate river steamer Red Rover was
commissioned as the Navy’s first hospital ship in 1862.
Three Catholic nuns served with the ship’s medical
department at the time, but it would take the Navy nearly 50 years to establish a Nurse Corps.
deaths in the hospital wards. Recruiting women to fill the
vacant billets would save lives. Secretary of the Navy
Victor H. Metcalf strongly endorsed Rixey’s arguments.
Congress relented and forwarded to the president
the legislation establishing a Navy Nurse Corps. With
the president’s approval, the search for the first superintendent proceeded.
Impressed by her experience on Relief and subsequent work in the Philippines and Panama, Rixey selected Hasson. Lenah Higbee became the chief nurse.
Eighteen other women were recruited to serve at the
naval hospital in Washington. This initial group came to
be known as the “Sacred 20.”
The Navy Nurse Corps attracted additional applicants
and, by 1910, 72 female nurses were serving in hospitals
along the eastern seaboard and at Mare Island, Calif.
America’s entry into World War I accelerated the demand
for female nurses and at war’s end, 1,034 women were in
uniform. Many served overseas and went on to perform
heroic roles during the flu pandemic of 1918-19, which
claimed the lives of 31 of these angels of mercy.
Over the next nine decades, the Navy Nurse Corps, in
the words of Adm. William F. Halsey, “magnificently
upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. naval service.” ■
Sources: Susan H. Godson, Serving Proudly: A History of
Women in the U.S. Navy (Naval Institute Press, 2001); The
author also thanks Bureau of Navy Medicine Historian Jan
Herman for his assistance.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical