Fort Campbell, KY – Blanchfield Army Community Hospital (BACH) team members gathered on February 2nd, 2023 to observe the 122nd anniversary of the Army Nurse Corps.
The observance was more poignant because it was held in a hospital named for one of the most revered nurses in the history of the Army, Col. Florence Blanchfield. The event served as an opportunity to learn about her significant advancements to healthcare delivery on the battlefield, nurse training, and education, and women’s equality.
According to Army records, Blanchfield joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1917 during World War I and served in France with American Expeditionary Forces.
“Despite the 100-year difference, her career path may resonate with new Army Nurse Corps officers today,” said Col. Vincent B. Myers, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital commander.
Soon after Miss Blanchfield joined the Army, disease spread across the globe with the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
“Col. Blanchfield was new to the Army and a nurse, overseas caring for Soldiers wounded in combat, during a pandemic. This sounds a bit familiar to more recent circumstances our current Army nurses and medical teams face when deployed. Every leader in the Army gets their start somewhere. Junior nurses today may be inspired by the challenges and obstacles Col. Blanchfield overcame during her era and go on to pave the way by leading other nurses,” said Myers.
Fellow Army nurse First Lt. Ashley Reynolds, assigned to the hospital’s emergency center and a former Marine, was in awe to learn about Blanchfield’s history.
“I really don’t know a lot about her, but hearing her story is very interesting,” said Reynolds.
Back in 1918, Blanchfield thrived in her environment. In less than two years, she earned the position of chief nurse and was highly regarded by her commanders.
“She has handled very difficult situations most successfully, was extremely efficient, and quite invaluable under existing conditions,” noted one wartime commander in an evaluation.
Soon after the war’s end, Blanchfield, and 20,000 other nurses left the Army and returned to civilian nursing. The Army Nurse Corps, which had grown more than 21,000 strong during the war, was downsizing.
Still, the Army left a positive impression on the nurse and in 1920, after the Army Reorganization Act was passed Blanchfield returned to active duty. The act authorized granting temporary officer status and relative rank to Army nurses. This meant they could wear the rank insignia, but it did not include the same pay, benefits, or authority as a male officer of comparable grade.
Over the next 15 years, Blanchfield served in a variety of positions in the U.S. and overseas including staff nurse, operating room nurse, nursing instructor, and chief nurse in six Army hospitals.
“She said herself that she had the itinerary of a traveling salesman, but that diversity of her duty assignments still remains a key component of career progression in the Army today,” said Myers, who as an Army Nurse Corps officer has 23 years of experience leading at all levels in health clinics, hospitals and at the policy level, serving as the chief of staff and military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs at the Pentagon.
“Her experiences gave her a strong foundation for her next assignment at the Office of the Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, where she excelled,” said Myers. “By 1939, she was promoted to Assistant Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, just as World War II was beginning.”
During that time, Blanchfield was an agent for change. She developed training programs for Army nurses to better enable the readiness of the corps. She helped to recruit thousands of qualified women into the Army Nurse Corps to support the war effort. And in 1943 she became the Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps.
“Wisdom, dedication, determination, diplomacy, ability, and efficiency were among the traits used to describe her and are certainly ones for us to emulate in our own careers,” said Myers. “In her role as superintendent, she was a transformational leader who embodies our Army Nurse Corps motto, embrace the past, engages the present, envisions the future.”
Records show that Superintendent Blanchfield helped change the practice of Army nursing, placing nurses closer to the front lines in a way that had never occurred before. As part of a newly developed “Chain of Evacuation,” nurses served in mobile field hospitals and evacuation hospitals. These were designed to set up and break down quickly so the units could follow the combat troops.
“She said then that the greatest need for expert nursing is immediately following front-line surgery, and that remains true to this day,” said Myers.
Army records show that fewer than four percent of the American Soldiers who received medical care in the field or underwent evacuation died from wounds or disease. This gave credence to her philosophy.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that the combat zone is no place for nurses. It is definitely,” she said at the time.
She also worked to promote the future of the corps by developing advanced training programs for nursing specialties including anesthesia and mental health. Quotas that had limited minority women from serving in the Army Nurse Corps were eliminated. At the height of operations, Blanchfield led more than 57,000 nurses during the war as they cared for wounded Soldiers on all fronts.
Yet, despite her dedication and service to the Army, Blanchfield, and her fellow nurses, were still paid at a lower rate than men of the same rank.
“She worked to secure equal benefits for nurses and had an ally in Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton,” Myers said. Blanchfield worked with Bolton to develop the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947 and Public Law 36, enacted in 1947, which established the Regular Army Nurse Corps and Women’s Medical Specialist Corps with permanent commissioned rank and benefits equal to those accorded male officers.
“As we celebrate 122 years as a corps, we can reflect on the service of those nurses before us, like Blanchfield, to guide us forward on our path to provide responsive, innovative, evidence-based nursing care to enhance readiness, preserve life and function, and promote the health and wellness of those entrusted to our care,” Myers said.
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital supports the medical readiness of Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Fort Campbell, Kentucky as well as serving retirees and family members on post and from the community surrounding Fort Campbell.