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With the U.S. military back in an active role around the world, perhaps now is a good time to look back at the contributions of Columbia-Presbyterian nurses to the major wars of the last century – World War I and II. Their efforts helped improve wartime healthcare as well as the role of women in medicine.

In 1916, when it appeared likely that the United States would become involved in World War I, the American Red Cross, the Medical Department of the Army, and physicians and nurses banded together in an attempt to avoid the spread of disease in military camps and medical units that insufficient planning caused during the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s. They decided to create base-hospital units at the country’s leading medical centers that would be ready with sufficient supplies and staff to assemble a 1,000-bed hospital on a few days notice, according to Gary Goldenberg in his book on the history of the School of Nursing, “Nurses of a Different Stripe.”

Presbyterian Hospital formed one of the first of 50 base hospital units, later called U.S. Base Hospital No. 2, under the direction of Dr. George E. Brewer, Presbyterian's chief surgeon, and Anna C. Maxwell, founder and director of the nursing school, which at that time was part of Presbyterian Hospital. (The School of Nursing officially became the Department of Nursing of Columbia University in 1937.)

Ms. Maxwell worked to ensure nurses received the recognition they deserved by designing a military uniform to aid nurses’ acceptance by other military personnel. But more importantly, Ms. Maxwell and other nurses and activists began lobbying in 1917 to persuade the armed forces to grant the title of officer to military nurses; this finally happened in 1920. They had to overcome resistance by congressmen, the secretary of war, and two surgeons general who opposed giving the nurses any rank.

Shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, six base hospitals, including Presbyterian's, were pressed into service to begin running general hospitals for the British forces in France. Base Hospital No. 2 spent most of its time during the war in Etretat, a well-known seaside resort in Normandy. When Presbyterian Hospital was asked to send two surgical teams near the front to support the British attack on Western Belgium, one of the teams used a nurse as its anesthetist. Major William Darrach, the team's surgeon and a future dean of P&S, told a British colonel that Anne Penland’12, was the most qualified in the group, even though the colonel didn’t think a nurse could physically hold down a larger man while giving anesthesia. One night more than 1,200 casualties came through the makeshift hospital and Ms. Penland performed admirably. Her achievements motivated the British to develop programs for nurse anesthetists. Graduates later freed up more than 100 doctors for medical and surgical work during the war.

About 200 Presbyterian nursing school alumnae – more than a third of all the school's graduates at the time – served overseas during World War I. Many received medals for their dedicated service.

In World War II, Base Hospital No. 2 was resurrected under the new name of the Second General Hospital of the U.S. Army. The unit served for more than three years in England, Ireland, and France. Seventy-two alumnae on the Presbyterian Hospital staff or the School of Nursing faculty, or both, actively served in the unit. Another 200 graduates served in other units around the world.

Marjorie Peto’26, who was an instructor of nursing at the School of Nursing, was chief nurse of Second General Hospital, which went first to Northern Ireland in the summer of 1942 and then to Oxford, England, to take charge of a 500-bed hospital. In June 1944, the Second General moved to Normandy just weeks after D-day, the Allied push to win France back from Germany. They treated many wounded from the war zone, including numerous German prisoners of war who soon accounted for half of the hospital’s patients.

In November 1944, Ms. Peto and 60 of her nurses were ordered to Paris, where the Allies had taken control but needed help moving wounded soldiers to Britain. One part of her staff went to Revigny for the Battle of the Bulge and another component went to Nancy to create a 1,500-bed hospital, the next location for the Second General. Most of the unit’s nurses were reunited there in early 1945. After peace was declared in Europe in May, the nurses had to wait a few more months until they finally left, arriving home in the United States in October.

The nurses of the Second General were welcomed as heroes at CPMC’s Maxwell Hall (the School of Nursing’s home that stood where the Milstein Hospital Building stands now) that month and later at a testimonial dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1946. Ms. Peto, by then Lt. Col. Peto, received the Bronze Star for meritorious service, for her “outstanding skill and sound judgment” directing the care of 22,000 sick and wounded soldiers.


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