Nursing, in the sense of bedside attendance of the sick and injured, has existed in the Navy from the first. Performed by enlisted crew members, the function was increasingly formalized during the 19th Century as part of the duties of the emerging hospital corpsman rates.
Even in the early 1800s, there was a recommendation that women be employed as Navy nurses. Nothing much came of this until the American Civil War, when Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross served in Navy facilities and on board the pioneer hospital ship USS Red Rover in the Mississippi River area. This was part of a great endeavor by Religious and lay women during the conflict, an undertaking that led to the post-war establishment of nursing as a real profession requiring formal training -- a profession both open to and dominated by women.
During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Navy employed a modest number of female contract nurses in its hospitals ashore and sent trained male nurses to sea on the hospital ship Solace. At the same time, the U.S. Army put women nurses on board ship, in its hospital ship Relief, and in 1901 obtained Congressional approval to establish the U.S. Army Nurse Corp (Female).
In 1902 the Navy's Surgeon-General proposed a similar arrangement for the sea service. Five years later, he reported to the Congress that "The Government supplies physicians and surgeons, splendidly equipped hospitals, and complete emergency facilities on every ship. The most serious omission in this excellent establishment is the want of that skilled nursing which civil institutions enjoy".
Image: Mother Angela Gillespie Founder of the Holy Cross Nursing Sisters. She was supervisor of the eighty Holy Cross Sisters who served as military nurses during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, 1965. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.