Creating the Cadet Nurse Corps for World War II

“Wartime nursing is different,” The American Journal of Nursing soberly noted in 1943. As nurses well knew, wars always created a shortage of qualified nurses both on the home front and in the military. Recognizing that resolving and addressing these shortages would require “all the imagination and administrative skill” of their profession, American nurses began to discuss and debate how to best address the growing shortage of nurses even before the United States entered World War II.

Light blue and white striped uniform top with collar and four buttons, red details on shoulders.

As American nurses embarked upon this discussion, the federal government was initiating steps to not only “step up recruitment of student nurses” but also to “educate…and better prepare graduate nurses.” By 1943, the United States Public Health Service had already funneled $5.7 million into nursing education in an attempt to address what they believed would be a pending shortage of trained nurses. But this $5 million was, as Public Health Service officials knew, insufficient to address the problem.

Poster with image of young woman in military uniform

In an attempt to solve this problem once and for all, Frances Payne Bolton, a United States Representative from Ohio, called for an innovative program to resolve the nation’s shortage of nurses. Backed by over $150 million in federal funds, the Cadet Nurse Corps program was signed into law in 1943. Under this program, federal funds were used both to provide scholarships and stipends directly to students and to improve facilities at nursing schools, many of which had been deemed sub-standard. In a surprising twist in a nation that was still ruled by Jim Crow, dispersal of these funds was to be uniform, with funds being provided to all nursing students, regardless of their race or ethnicity, and to all nursing schools, including those that served primarily or even solely minority students.  

Following passage of the Bolton Act, a massive recruitment campaign was launched. Targeting women who were high-school graduates between the ages of 17-35, the campaign used ads, films, radio programs, billboards, and recruiting posters to encourage women to join the Cadet Nurse Corps. Recruitment materials underscored the benefits of the program: free tuition, coverage of book fees and uniform costs, and even a stipend to cover any ancillary costs. In exchange for this financial assistance, nursing students were required to complete their education in 30 months and to then work as civilian or military nurses throughout the duration of the war. The recruitment campaign was an unconditional success, with the program enrolling its target number of recruits each year it was in operation.

Two photos of details of the above uniform. Stripes. Badge with red circle and white cross with text "Cadet Nurse." Button with anchor and medical symbol.

Across the country, nursing schools underwent a radical transformation as federal funds helped schools update and modernize their equipment and facilities. Because nursing schools that served minority populations were more likely to have large numbers of students in need of financial assistance, and because these nursing schools were less likely to have a strong endowment that they could use to improve their facilities, the Cadet Nurse Corps program had an especially dramatic impact on minority access to nursing education. At some nursing schools, such as the Sage Memorial Nursing School which served predominantly Navajo students, a significant number of students joined the Cadet Nurse Corps. Looking back at their experiences, the women in the Cadet Nurse Corps who studied at Sage remembered that the stipends they received from the government to study nursing “made them relatively rich in an area that was desperately poor.” Twenty-one African American nursing schools also benefited substantially from this program, as did 38 nursing programs that accepted both African American and white students.

Between 1943 and 1948, when the program was terminated, just over 124,000 women enrolled in the Cadet Nurse Corps program. For many of these women, the program helped propel them into a profession and into the American middle class. Nursing schools were also transformed as federal funds were used to build modern facilities and ensure that laboratory equipment was state of the art.

More broadly, the Cadet Nurse Corps program ensured that Americans, whether they were enrolled in the military or serving on the home front, had access to the nursing care that they needed throughout and after the war years.

Gray cap with no brim

Alexandra M. Lord, Ph.D., is chair of the History of Medicine and Science Division. She has also blogged about the history of measles. For National Nurses Week (May 6-12), you may want to read about a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C., midwives on horseback, or stories from the frontline of a measles epidemic