Profiles In Nursing

Col. Julia Stimson (1881–1948), Army Nurse Corps Superintendent

A decorated officer, she led 20,000 nurses during WWI

Julia Stimson in uniform with officers around her and on the right a photo of her straight-faced in a uniform

Once the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Armed Forces, Julia Catherine Stimson, RN, served her country as a nurse, a social worker and a leader — including an 18-year tenure as superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, the longest term in the Corps’ history.

Overcoming Personal Pain

Born in 1881 in Worchester, Mass., Stimson began her nurse training at New York Hospital in 1904. Becoming a nurse demanded significant personal sacrifice: Stimson suffered from a chronic ulcerative skin condition, which caused her significant pain throughout her schooling (and her later career). Despite frequent surgeries and bouts of bedrest that delayed her graduation, she persevered and ultimately graduated in 1908.

Stimson’s nursing career began at Harlem Hospital, where she was instrumental in developing a medical social service to support patients after discharge. This work led to executive positions, including heading the medical social services department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

From Social Work to Textbook Author

In this role, Stimson became a pioneer in yet another field, serving as one of the first professional social workers in St. Louis. Her success was not without its challenges. She faced opposition and skepticism as she advocated to grow the social services program and sought to win the approval of St. Louis Children’s physicians.

Nursing Education

Stimson bolstered her credibility by citing specific examples of how the social work program helped patients and physicians improve outcomes, which eventually earned her the support of hospital and community leaders — an early example of the value of evidence in nursing practice and health sciences. Another of Stimson’s early achievements was authoring a textbook: The Nurses’ Handbook of Drugs and Solution, first published in 1910.

Advocating for Army Nurses

A Red Cross nurse since 1909, Stimson left social work when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, volunteering as chief nurse at Base Hospital 21, located on the campus of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Throughout her wartime assignments at home and abroad, Stimson held various roles, including chief of the Red Cross Nursing Service and director of nursing service for the American Expeditionary Forces. Her nursing work during the war went beyond the call of duty. At one point, she even lent her violin to a wounded soldier to raise his spirits.

In 1919, Stimson became the fifth superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, leading more than 20,000 appointed nurses. In 1920, these nurses belatedly received official recognition for their service when the Army Reorganization Act authorized “relative ranks” for Army nurses, making them the equivalent of commissioned officers.

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As superintendent, Stimson received the relative rank of major, making her the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the American armed forces up to that time. She also served as the first dean of the Army School of Nursing.

During her tenure, Stimson advocated for increased professional benefits and better housing for Army nurses, who did not yet receive commissioned officers’ full salary and benefits. Stimson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919, America’s highest decoration for non-combat service, which has been awarded to only 23 Army nurses. Stimson went on to receive the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1929.

The Full Rank

Following the end of her lengthy tenure as superintendent in 1937, Stimson continued to seek opportunities to serve. In 1938, she was elected president of the American Nurses Association. When the Second World War broke out, she organized and led the National Nursing Council in Defense to mobilize and recruit more Army nurses.

Stimson traveled the country, giving lectures to encourage women to serve their country as she had. Just six weeks before her death in 1948, the Army honored Stimson’s service by promoting her to the rank of full colonel — no longer a mere relative rank or temporary commission. In 1976, the ANA posthumously inducted her into its Bicentennial Hall of Fame.

Nurses today can find inspiration in Stimson’s work. Throughout her career, she overcame significant obstacles, both personal and institutional, and she was not selfish in her success. The more she advanced, the more she worked to give back and find new ways to make an impact for the nurses who followed her and the communities she served.

JESSICA DSUBAK, RN, MSN, is the director of nursing practice for the Ohio Nurses Association and a freelance writer specializing in the healthcare industry.

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