Emma Davis: Anita McGee and the Army Nurse Corps

My name is Emma Davis, and I am a Presidential Scholar at Florida State University pursuing a dual degree in History and French with minors in Museum Studies and Humanities. Currently, I work at the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation here in Tallahassee. After graduating from FSU next spring, I hope to continue working in the field of public history. This semester, I received the 2021 Scott and Ina McNichols Undergraduate Research Award through the IDEA Grants program. This award will allow me to dedicate the summer semester to working on research for my Honors in the Major thesis.

Why did the Spanish-American War alter the perception and practice of military nursing? How did American women navigate medical education, military service, and gender expectations in the nineteenth century? Over the summer, I hope to answer these questions through my research on the life and career of Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee. The daughter of a prominent astronomer and wife of an anthropologist, McGee was a trailblazing force for women in medicine and in the military. After studying medicine at Columbian (now George Washington) University, McGee operated a private practice in Washington. There, McGee was one of the inaugural members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, founded in 1890.

Emma Davis

In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States sent women to the battlefield for the first time since the Civil War. This wouldn’t be the last time that female nurses and physicians were called on at the outbreak of war – but it would the last time they served without a permanent place in the military once peace was declared. When the Spanish-American War broke out, the Daughters of the American Revolution leapt to action, establishing a Hospital Corps to recruit and evaluate volunteer nurses across the country.

The Army had traditionally preferred this contract system, calling on nurses as the need arose. However, the Spanish-American War marked a turning point for women in military medicine. In 1901, The Army Nurse Corps was established under the Army Reorganization Act, creating a standing reserve of nurses in the Army. At the helm of the D.A.R.’s Hospital Corps, McGee played a pivotal role in the selection of nurses for service in the Army and was named Acting Assistant Surgeon General during the war. But after peace was declared, McGee’s fight continued.

Anita N. McGee, National Library of Medicine

McGee fought to establish a permanent nursing corps for the Army, and in 1901 authored the legislation that would establish the Army Nurse Corps, securing, for the first time, a permanent place for American women in the military. While considerable research has been conducted on the Army Nurse Corps in twentieth century, very little has been written on its origin, and the woman behind it has largely been ignored. My research will address this gap in the scholarship.

Over the summer, I hope to travel to Washington, D.C. to conduct archival research on McGee at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Right now, it is still unclear whether or not these facilities will be open to researchers over the summer. In the event that I am unable to conduct this archival research, I plan to focus my research more on the role of the DAR’s Hospital Corps, making use of digitized resources at the Library of Congress and the archives of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

With a life bookended by the Civil War and the Second World War, Anita Newcomb McGee lived and worked during a period of profound change for women in medicine and in the military. In my research, I will present McGee’s life and career as a case study for women’s roles in medicine and the military at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Feature Image of nurses serving during the Spanish-American War (1898) is from the National Library of Medicine and can be found here. Portrait of Anita McGee is also courtesy of the National Library of Medicine and can be found here.

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