Lena Angevine Warner, Spanish-American War Nurse

Profiles in Nursing

Lena Angevine Warner, Spanish-American War Nurse

Childhood immunity to yellow fever allowed her to care for others with the disease.

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Nurse Lena Angevine WarnerNot everybody can be first, but Lena Angevine Warner managed it most of her career. She was the first chairman of the State Board of Examiners of Nurses in Tennessee, and the first license issued in that state was hers. Yes, number 000001. Long before that, she had been the first student (1887) and the first graduate at the Memphis Training School for Nurses. In 1898 she became the first superintendent of nurses at the new Memphis City Hospital. The present nursing school at the University of Tennessee, noted for its graduate education, is a direct outgrowth.

Not bad for someone who as a child barely survived yellow fever. When she decided to pursue nursing, it was against the wishes of her grandparents who had taken her in after the deadly epidemic killed most of her family.

Her independence persisted. In 1898 she answered a call for volunteers to care for soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War. It was a short war, and soon she volunteered to be part of Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever Commission. The searing memory of her family’s experience did not deter her. After hearing a lecture on yellow fever, she reported, “I was possessed of a great desire to come in contact with the disease.” Her childhood immunity was the perfect safeguard.

During her time in Cuba, the Army Medical Department established a permanent nurse corps; so in 1901 she achieved another first: she was one of the 202 charter members. The pay was the tidy sum of $50 a month. Photos of the period show a uniform featuring starched high collars and cuffs, with billowing white aprons covering to the ankles. Classy but not practical when you consider yellow fever is also known as vomito negro.

She spent some time at the Presidio in California, but in1902 Lena Warner left the army because of ill health. She didn’t slow down, however. After a short period in Chicago, where she learned about the visiting nurse program, she settled back in Tennessee. There her efforts focused on the organization of nurses and on public health. From 1916, until her retirement at age 79, she served as the director of rural health and sanitation for the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service. Her impact was measured not in cures or original discoveries but by her initiatives in screening windows, mandating privies, and enforcing mosquito abatement. Warner’s experience in Cuba had taught her the value of prevention, and she seems never to have forgotten it.

The American Red Cross recognized Warner with their Certificate of Merit for her 22 years of service, which included helping to organize 20 chapters within Tennessee. But Warner’s life was not without controversy. Although she claimed to have graduated from the University of Chicago, according the E. Dianna Greenhill, RN, BSN, Ed.D, her foremost biographer, there is no evidence she earned a degree.

Her marital status was always murky. She said she was a widow; her family said she was divorced. Other witnesses dispute her reminiscences as chief nurse of the Walter Reed experiments, so it’s clear she would never win a popularity contest. But when she died in a nursing home August 19, 1948, those discrepancies had faded. She remains an outstanding example of nursing leadership and is known, according to Greenhill, as Tennessee’s “pioneer nurse.” Today, on occasion, the University of Tennessee School of Nursing grants the Lena Warner Prize for outstanding contributions to the health of the people of the world.

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a free lance writer from Los Angeles. She has 30 years of nursing experience.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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