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The first uniformed trained nurses with formal military rank in the U.S. Navy served on the hospital ship the USS Solace during the Spanish-American War in 1898. But 10 years later, men were excluded from the Navy Nurse Corps by a law that remained in effect until 1965.


These men graduated from New York City's Mills School of Nursing at Bellevue Hospital, one of the first general nursing programs exclusively for men in the United States. The program opened in 1886 and offered a two-year program that qualified graduates as trained nurses. Once in the Navy, these eight men were authorized the rating of a cook-nurse for pay and organizational purposes, placing them subordinate to officers and senior to nonrated seamen.


The 5,700-ton Solace carried the sick and wounded from Cuba (site of the famous destruction of the USS Maine) to the United States during the war. It had a medical crew that included a surgeon, three assistant surgeons, and three hospital stewards (one of whom was an embalmer). Also pictured are the nurses' pharmacist colleagues (in black hats). Not only did the ship and its crew have the honor of inaugurating men trained as nurses who also held military rank, it also marked the first time antiseptic surgery was performed at sea.


A captured Spanish chief of staff gratefully described the care he and fellow prisoners of war received from the male nurses of the Solace: "These gentlemen did all in their power to alleviate our physical and mental suffering."


Trained male nurses continued to serve in the Navy as hospital corpsmen until 1965 when they won the right to receive commissions as members of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.


Historians remember the Spanish-American War as the first time professional female nurses served in the U.S. armed services. We may have forgotten that the Spanish-American War was the first time trained male nurses were specifically recruited with a formal rank, a situation that eluded female nurses until after World War I. The male nurses on the Solace deserve attention and recognition now, as they did then, since men and not just women have historically been attracted to nursing. Part of the solution to the current nursing shortage is to attract more men into the profession-continuing a long tradition in nursing. -Richard J. Westphal, MSN, APRN,BC, commander, Nurse Corps, United States Navy. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U. S. Government.



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