Col. Florence Blanchfield, RN (1884-1971), The Little Colonel

Profiles in Nursing

Col. Florence Blanchfield, RN (1884-1971), The Little Colonel

Battling for Army Nurses

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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In July 1947, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower commissioned Florence Blanchfield, RN, as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, marking the end of a decades-long effort to obtain full  military rank for U.S. Army nurses. Much of that effort had been led by Blanchfield herself, a 5-foot-1-inch-tall nurse known as the “Little Colonel.”

All in the Family

Healthcare was something of a family tradition for Blanchfield. Her maternal grandfather and an uncle were physicians and her mother and both her sisters also became nurses.

Col. Florence BlanchfieldBlanchfield’s early career was surprisingly varied. After graduating from Southside Hospital Training School for Nurses in Pittsburgh, she served as a private-duty nurse, an industrial nurse for the U.S. Steel Corporation, a hospital nurse and a civilian nurse in the Panama Canal Zone. Returning home from the last assignment, she sailed aboard one of the first ships to transverse the canal.

She joined the Army in 1917 and was immediately sent to France, where she eventually became the head of Combat Hospital No. 5. She briefly left the Army at the end of the war, but by 1919, the exciting opportunities of military nursing drew her back. Over the next 15 years, she served in China, the Philippines and all over the United States.

At that time, Army nurses still received only “relative ranks” that did not provide the same rights, privileges or pay enjoyed by male commissioned officers of the same grade. Blanchfield often chafed at serving under officers who understood little of nursing and made it her mission to help military nurses achieve full rank, pay and benefits.

Controversial Decisions

In 1935, Blanchfield began a new permanent assignment in Washington D.C., first as a staff officer for the U.S. surgeon general and then as second in command of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) under Superintendent Col. Julia Flikke. By 1943, Blanchfield’s talents led to her appointment as the ANC’s new superintendent.

Under the “Little Colonel,” the Army Nurse Corps grew to about 57,000 nurses. ANC nurses served in every theater of the war, from Europe and the Pacific to Africa and Asia. Blanchfield toured battlefields extensively to better understand conditions in the field, which led her to make the innovative and controversial decision to move nurses closer to the front lines.

That change helped American servicemen receive more timely surgical care, but made Army nursing a perilous occupation. In their various roles, ANC nurses suffered the highest casualty rate of all the war’s U.S. servicewomen — 201 nurses died during wartime service, 16 as a direct result of enemy action. Eighty-three became prisoners of war.

In all, 1,600 U.S. Army nurses received decorations for their wartime service. Blanchfield herself received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.

Forbidden to Marry

It was not lost on Blanchfield that while all Army nurses were volunteers and many had made great sacrifices, none — even Blanchfield herself — enjoyed full, permanent military rank. Army nurses were also prohibited from marrying.

Before her retirement from active duty, Blanchfield worked to change both injustices and in the process help to maintain the ANC’s strength, recognizing that nurses were leaving in large numbers in order to get married. “We have no fears of there being a surplus of nurses as after World War I,” she remarked.

Blanchfield retired in September 1947, but her work as a consultant and author kept her busy. She also studied dressmaking and even auto mechanics. However, retirement didn’t completely sever her ties to the military; she later helped to establish specialized courses for Army nursing administration, which clearly required different skills than did civilian nursing.

In 1951, the International Red Cross awarded Blanchfield the Florence Nightingale Medal for service to humanity. The Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky., was later named after her and in 1996, she was posthumously inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame as one of the 20th century’s most respected nurse leaders.   

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