Born to Lead

posted in: WWI Nurses | 0

“To whom much is given, from him much is expected.”  Or her.

Much was given to Julia Stimson (born to privilege in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1881) and much was expected.  (Hers was a family whose history of public service extended back at least two centuries.)  Her grandfather had been president of Dartmouth College; her father was the minister of the local Congregational Church.  Her cousin would grow up to become secretary of state of the United States–for two different presidents!

Perhaps, occasionally, the pressure grew too great.  Stimson ran away from home more than once as a teenager.  In the end, she persevered and graduated from Brearly School in New York City and from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie.  She had planned to go on to medical school, but her family steered her away from becoming a doctor.  Stimson complied.  By temperament and upbringing, she was a “traditionalist.”  She accepted the limitation that custom had erected in front of her and followed a more traditional path into nursing.  (The path was only relatively more traditional.  Professional nursing as a career had been available to middle-class women for only a generation, since the 1870s.)

Stimson graduated from New York Hospital Training School for Nurses and was quickly hired as Chief Nurse at Harlem Hospital.  Three years later, she relocated to St. Louis (where she had spent much of her youth) and headed up the nursing staff at Barnes Hospital, Washington University.  During the Ohio River flood of 1913 she volunteered as a reserve nurse with the Red Cross.  When St. Louis’s Base Hospital No. 21 was organized in preparation for impending war, Stimson was the obvious choice to lead its team of nurses.

In June, 1917, Base Hospital No. 21 took control of British General Hospital No. 12 in Rouen, France.  Stimson supervised as many as a hundred nurses and aides, leading by example, firm directive, and a cautiously inclusive management style.  She aimed, as she professed, to “appeal to the best” in her charges, rather than to “insist on discipline for discipline’s sake.”  She maintained an appropriate psychological distance from her subordinates, yet kept her door open to individual nurses who might need a sounding board or just a shoulder to lean on.  She was “a commanding presence” but also “approachable.”

Stimson used her commanding presence to enforce Army regulations, even when they applied a double standard to Army women.  In this, their first official war, Nurse Corps nurses existed in a legal No Man’s Land.  Regulation 1421½ determined that they would be officers–but without rank.  This meant that they could–and were expected to–give orders to enlisted men, but they had no recourse if those orders were not followed.  Nurses could dine with medical officers–doctors–but they could not be assured of their mutual respect.  They could neither fraternize with enlisted men nor meet alone with doctors.  Good soldier that she was, Stimson enforced all these rules without question.

Indeed, she went further.  She asked her nurses to pledge not to smoke or drink when off duty.  These low class habits could only lead to more trouble.  Stimson was intent to hold her nurses to a high moral standard.  Some of them came, she wrote, from “individual background[s]” (the upper end of middle-class?) that had given them self-discipline.  Others’ backgrounds (the lower end?) meant they required “careful supervision and regulation” on her part.  Stimson wore her social conservatism in a broad swath upon her sleeve.

Stimson served as chief nurse for Base Hospital No. 21 for ten months before being tapped to direct Red Cross and then Army nursing services from Paris.  After demobilization, she was–inevitably–promoted to Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps.

In her new post, Stimson advocated full rank for nurses, a departure from her earlier position.  During the war, her natural conservatism prevented her from pressing for change.  With the immediate crisis over, she changed her stance, and, belated or not, her advocacy helped make the difference.  In 1920, the Army revoked Regulation 1421½ and awarded nurses (continuing to split hairs!) relative rank.  Absolute rank–with equal pay and full right of command–would wait another twenty-seven years, until after the end of World War II.  Stimson lived long enough–barely–to witness the change.

She retired from the Army in 1937, then served as president of the American Nursing Association from 1938 to 1944.  During the next world war, she agreed to come out of retirement to help recruit for the Army Nurse Corps.  She attained a rank of full colonel after the war.  More important, she finally achieved three years of peace to herself.  The woman of privilege, born to service, finally stepped back and let others lead in her place.

She died at her home in Briarcliff, New York, in September, 1948.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.