National Nurses Week, which honors the many contributions of nurses and the nursing profession, ends each year on May 12 to coincide with the birthday of Florence Nightingale, considered by many to be the founder of modern nursing. But a nurse who was her contemporary, Clara Barton, helped make nursing popular in the United States, and a later nurse, Jane Delano, made nursing a cornerstone of the American Red Cross.
Before founding the American Red Cross in 1881, Barton was well known as a battlefied nurse who aided soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. Early Red Cross nurses were volunteers who provided care and relief to victims of disaster and supported the military during wartime.
Following changes to the American Red Cross charter at the turn of the century, the nursing program began to expand rapidly. Jane Delano was appointed as director of the newly created Red Cross Nursing Service in 1909 and almost single-handedly created American Red Cross Nursing as an accepted medical profession that we know today.
Delano understood the importance of having a reserve of volunteer nurses readily available to serve should a military conflict arise. Traveling around the country, Delano spoke at nursing schools and at nurses’ meetings in an attempt to bolster the number of Red Cross nurses. Delano then took nursing to the home, creating educational programs in first aid and home nursing for homemakers.
During World War I, more than 29,000 Red Cross nurses provided aid to civilians and military personnel. When World War II began, that number jumped dramatically, to 71,000 nurses serving at home or overseas, mostly within the armed forces.
Benefiting Chapters and their Communities
Since the end of the Second World War, Red Cross nursing has seen a few changes. Changes to the Red Cross charter in 1947 relieved the organization of its nurse recruitment responsibilities and prompted a shift away from the focus on being a public health nursing service. Nurses began to play a vital role in the Red Cross civilian blood program, helping expand the program to become the official blood collection agency for the U.S. military.
Today, Red Cross nursing is led by the Office of the Chief Nurse (OCN), which is responsible for supporting and strengthening paid and volunteer nurse involvement throughout the Red Cross, maintaining liaison with other service lines, and managing nurse enrollment and the nursing field infrastructure programs. One current OCN initiative is the Nurse Liaison Program, whereby volunteer nurses are responsible for recruiting and retaining nurses on a local scale. Each nurse liaison acts as an advisor to Red Cross chapters to which they are assigned. These nurses teach and develop training courses and also seek out and maintain local healthcare partnerships to benefit chapters and their communities.
More than 30,000 nurses continue to be involved with the American Red Cross today. During National Nurses Week, we honor those who serve in the nursing profession along with the thousands of volunteers without whom the humanitarian work of the American Red Cross would not be possible.