You’ve heard of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. And if you’re a Downton Abbey fan like me, you know a little about what nurses did in World War I. I am taking a class from Helen Peters on Women of World War II. We learned about nurses this week, and it got me thinking about all the wonderful work that nurses do, and have done, especially in Alaska since that’s my home.
There were a few hospitals in the early years of Alaska as a U.S. territory, and nurses started working in many of them. The Sisters of Providence came to Alaska in 1902, and established the Holy Cross Hospital in Nome, adding services to other communities later. Other nurses served in small hospitals in mining districts like Council and Candle. After WWI, the American Red Cross sent nurses to work along the Alaska Railroad route and the Aleutians. The riverboat Martha Angeline housed doctors and nurses as they worked on the Yukon River from 1926-1934. The first Nurse Practice Act was passed by the territorial legislature in 1941, creating a nursing board and license requirements. During World War II, nurses were stationed in several locations in Alaska. USAAF flight nurses in some of the first airlift units were based in Alaska and helped evacuate soldiers.
Public health nurses were and still are a vital link to health care in Alaska. At first,they worked under the Alaska School Service, teaching in schools but also providing health care in villages, and then the title was changed to village or field nurse as their duties focused on health. Later through the Office of Indian Affairs, they were often itinerant nurses, traveling by dog sled between villages. Today, public health nurses work under the State of Alaska, based in clinics in small communities all over the state, and some still travel, although the plane is more common transportation now.