While soldiers were fighting on the battlefield during the First World War, more than 10,000 nurses were fighting for the lives of sick and wounded military personnel. Thousands of brave women registered for the Army Nurse Corps during the First World War with the desire to do their part in the nation’s war effort at a time when women were not part of the military. They worked in hospitals, on the battlefield and in mobile units. More than 200 would die during their service.
Courageous Johns Hopkins nurses staffed all but one of the 65 nurse positions in the 1,000-bed Johns Hopkins Base Hospital Unit No. 18. Initially, the nurses treated cold-related illnesses, but as the war progressed in the fall of 1918, the unit began to treat war injuries with great frequency. In March of 1918 they treated a convoy of 250 soldiers wounded by mustard gas. American medical personnel were ill-prepared for handling chemical injuries. Mustard gas, more like a liquid than a gas and usually dispersed in droplets, posed a unique challenge. Because the gas impacted skin even when it was covered by clothing, affected soldiers needed to be showered and given new clothes within 30 minutes of impact before they even arrived at the hospital. This required some nurses to go into the field in order to aid in the evacuation and immediate care of injured soldiers. Once the soldiers were at the hospital, healing them required creativity and ingenuity on the part of the nurses. In order to treat the blisters caused by mustard gases, which could span the entirety of soldiers’ bodies, nurses would often have to cut the blistered skin and bandage it in order to expedite healing. Soldiers also suffered from eye and respiratory issues as a result of gassing.
Under the direction of Bessie Baker (Johns Hopkins Nursing Class of 1902), the nurses of Johns Hopkins Base Unit No. 18 were of great service to the United States military throughout the course of the First World War. To learn more about World War I and Johns Hopkins Nursing’s presence in the Army Nursing Corps, check out the Hopkins and the Great War exhibit (on display until January 2017) at the School of Nursing or online in our digital exhibit.