by Suzanne Wiley, volunteer contributor
Before the successes of Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, there were hundreds of women who broke the glass ceiling before the concept existed. Though these women were changing the world, at the time, their accomplishments and stories were not as diligently reported as many of America’s greatest men. With the help of Women’s History Month, now in its 35th year, we bring these courageous, smart and determined women’s tales back to life, rewriting history when the text books have left so many of these women’s names out. We weave these women’s stories because they are the fabric foundation of women’s stories today.
One of these notable women is Jane Delano—one of the most famous nurses in history. Jane accomplished a lot throughout her professional career as a nurse, taking on multiple roles at once, however, her most significant achievement started out with a little white lie.
Jane Delano signed up for the Army Nurse Corps, but because she was older than the 45 year old age limit to join, she left her age off the application. And good thing, too, as Jane is credited with saving the failing Army Nurse Corps program. Through her idea of marrying the Army Nurse Corps with the American Red Cross Nursing Service and the American Nurses Association, Jane recruited 8,000 nurses ready to deploy and serve before the United States entered World War I. Her joint program enlisted and trained over 20,000 nurses who served during the war. Because of Jane’s dedication to service, she paved the way for the over 370,000 nurses who have volunteered for the American Red Cross.
Born in 1862 in Montour Falls, New York, Jane started her professional life teaching school before she felt the calling to become a nurse. At 24, she finished nurse training at America’s oldest, continuously operating hospital’s nurse training school, Bellevue in New York City. Bellevue Training School was the first in the United States to adopt and teach Florence Nightingale’s principal teachings. At the time, nursing was still young in establishing standards and being recognized as a profession.
After graduating from Bellevue, she took the position of superintendent of nurses at Sandhills Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida during a yellow fever epidemic. It is at Sandhills where Jane’s legacy begins. At the time, it was only a theory that some scientists believed that yellow fever was spread through mosquitoes. While at Sandhills, Jane hung screens and mosquito nets around the patients’ areas and nurses’ sleeping quarters.
Jane joined the Red Cross in 1898 during the Spanish-American War working as secretary for the enrollment of nurses. Before deciding to join the Red Cross full time in 1912, Jane was
• Superintendent of nurses at University Hospital in Philadelphia
• Superintendent at the House of Refuge
• Superintendent of the Training School at Bellevue Hospital
• President of the Associated Alumnae
• President of the Board of Directors of the American Journal of Nursing
• Chairmanship of the American Red Cross Nursing Service
• Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps
• Worked for the Surgeon General
About her decision, Jane said, “I would rather live on a crust and serve the Red Cross than do anything else in the world.”
After the war, Jane traveled to France to visit her enlisted nurses. She was sick from chronic mastoiditis—an infection of the mastoid bone in the skull originating from a middle ear infection. Jane Delano passed away on April 15, 1919 and was buried in the military cemetery in Savenay, France. Nearly a year later, her body was exhumed and returned to the United States to be buried in the nurses’ plot in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. She was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. 500 people attended her funeral. It is said that Jane’s last words were, “I must get back to work.”
The Red Cross is synonymous with nursing and much of the humanitarian organization’s history is founded on nursing services. Jane’s memory is honored through the Jane Delano Student Nurse Scholarship.
If you are a nurse and wish to volunteer with the Red Cross, please visit the volunteer nurses’ page.