A clear choice: Cadet Nurses and UW School of Nursing

Driving the public good


During World War II, over 100,000 nursing students in the U.S. — including many at the UW School of Nursing — joined the Cadet Nurse Corps to fill vacancies in civilian hospitals left by medical forces going abroad.

(School of Nursing, November 2015)

Patricia Ross (nee Absher) BSN ’47, had two choices after graduating from Puyallup High School in 1942: join the Tacoma Tigerettes as a third-basewoman to boost the morale of a warsick nation, or enroll in the University of Washington School of Nursing.

“My choice was clear,” she said.

After raising tuition money picking berries in the South Sound of Washington, Ross moved up to Seattle to begin her schooling.

At the same time, World War II forced millions of people at home in the United States to begin working industrial jobs, resulting in unprecedented health problems. Many of these workers were new to industrial work, often living in trailer camps and crowded, unsanitary living quarters. War industries more than doubled the number of nurses needed to care for industrial employees. Hospitals saw a huge influx of new patients. Meanwhile, the thousands of healthcare professionals who joined the military to aid the war effort abroad left perilous vacancies all over the United States, and hospitals began closing entire wards and departments.

To fill those vacancies, the US Federal Government established the Cadet Nurse Corps in 1943 so that civilians and nursing students could be trained to work in hospitals and clinics until the medical force returned home. All state-accredited schools of nursing were eligible to participate in the Corps if they agreed to accelerate their programs and arrange for senior cadets to complete a residency in their home hospital, a state or federal hospital, or other public health service facility. For students at the University of Washington School of Nursing, that meant spending many years at Harborview Hall, first as a student, and then as a cadet.

Nursing visionary Dean Elizabeth Sterling Soule made sure the UW School of Nursing was approved by the Cadet Nurse Corps Program. While the primary purpose of the Cadet Nurse Corps was to address the healthcare shortage, Soule understood that this was a pivotal moment in nursing history. For the first time, undergraduate nursing students could receive federal funding for their education.

In a book about nursing at home during World War II, professor emeritus and class of ’47 graduate Doris Carnivali wrote: “Because Seattle was close to Japan (relatively speaking), Boeing was sited here, and the Bremerton ship yards were close by, the threat of being bombed felt very real.”

Perhaps that feeling of looming threat inspired the students of the UW School of Nursing Seattle to join the Cadets. In Pat Ross’ class, the Basic 27’s, all but one joined the Cadets. Some were still teenagers when they began caring for the sick and wounded at Harborview Hospital in 1943. Many Basic 27’s started their schooling back in 1941, but did not graduate until 1947, when the nursing crisis was declared over.

“If the war hadn’t ended, we’d all have gone right into military nursing,” said Betty Bemis (nee Hill), BSN ’47.

Ross was just 20 years old when she joined the Nurse Cadets and began giving full-time care to the sick and wounded at Harborview Hospital.

“The heartache—oh my God. One young man, at 17, set out from Alabama. He was supposed to be shipped out but ended up with leukemia at Harborview. I was at his bedside when his mother called, I held his hand for 27 hours. My friends took my shifts so I could stay with him.”

Cadet nurses were not permitted to marry during their service, though many had boyfriends fighting in the war.

In a cruel twist of fate, a polio epidemic struck Seattle during the Cadet Corps service. Ross recalls the chaos of the time.

“This poor young intern came in [to the polio area] to do a spinal tap and he couldn’t do it,” she said. “I said, ‘just give me the needle!’ He was shipped off the next day.”

Bemis estimated seeing at least 10 patients a day on her own; Ross remembers 12 hour work days. Supplies, like linens, were scarce. In the heyday of the war, the former Ephrata High School valedictorian and cheerleader remembers offering mostly comfort — back rubs, baths.

Despite it all, the cadets had fun. Ross and a tiny group she called “the Evil Eight” snuck through the underground hallways of Harborview to go out and have the occasional beer. “It’s how we stayed alive,” she said.  And in 1945, the nursing students (most of whom were serving in the Corps) put together the inaugural yearbook, Capsule. Dean Soule, referred to as the “First lady of nursing at the University of Washington,” writes on the first page:

“Because we are at war, you are having your work in the most critical period nursing has ever known. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you are vital war work and at the same time having the real joy of helping people when they need it most.”

When the war officially ended in 1945, Cadets were providing 80 percent of the nursing care in more than 1,000 civilian hospitals. The Corps trained 124,000 nurses in less than five years, which made it the largest successful training program in the Unites States at the time. But more importantly, as Dean Soule predicted, it changed the way nurses were educated.

Dean Soule had already begun advocating and implementing a more academic approach to nursing education in lieu of the traditional apprenticeship. She saw that the Corps would complement her curricular changes.

Cadet nursing helped heal an aching nation while ushering in the beginning of a more modern, intensive, science focused nursing education—one in which  the UW would go on to lead.

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