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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

The Vassar Training Camp for Nurses

To those of us who are both Vassar graduates and member of the nursing profession this is almost the proudest and most thrilling moment of our lives, for we see our own beloved Alma Mater making to our no less beloved profession the greatest contribution I believe, that any college could make at this time of our country’s need. Surely the recruits for the Training Camp is the responsibility for every Vassar alumna, whatever she may be, and equally we feel sure that the Vassar alumnae themselves will be the first to enlist at this time of their country’s need and of Vassar’s response.

—Katharine Tucker ‘07 

By 1918, World War I was coming to a close, but the United States war effort, including in the fields of medicine and nursing, persisted. Initially taking the path of isolationism, by 1917 America had joined the Allies and declared war on Germany. The country underwent a wartime transformation, dedicating many of its resources to support over four million US troops deployed to the war. Although the Army Nurse Corps had been founded in 1901, when the war had started the Corps comprised only 4,093 nurses—far below the number authorized. Other components of the military nursing force were similarly undersubscribed. Of the 80-90,000 registered nurses in the US during WWI, 16,500 found themselves in active service either in the Red Cross, the US Army and Navy Nurse Corps. The plan proposed at Vassar addressed the growing need of trained nurses and medical professionals, at home and overseas, calling specifically on women who were recent college graduates.

Since the start of the war Vassar’s trustees had sought a unique contribution to aid the war effort, and in 1917 a memo from a special committee of three trustees—Frank L. Babbot, Frank R. Chambers, and Minnie Cumnock Blodgett ’84— proposed such a plan. The Vassar Training Camp for Nurses, which commenced in July, 1918, both addressed the immediate need and also served to strengthen the presence of women in the field of nursing. The program summoned college women to join in the patriotic spirit of the time by devoting themselves to at least temporary careers as nurses. The Vassar project was informally known as the Rainbow Division, after the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division, so-called because it, too, comprised participants from all regions and walk of life. In the student nurses’ case, the nickname came also from the different colored uniforms the students wore. As Gladys Bonner Clappison, a participant in the program, explained, “Each student had to wear the probationer’s uniform of the school to which she had applied for completion of her nursing education. The variously colored uniforms led to the students’ calling themselves the ‘Rainbow Division.’”

Designed and partially funded by Mrs. Blodgett—a prominent proponent of public health care— the Nurses Training Camp encouraged interest in medicine and nursing, giving women valuable skills and knowledge and aiding their entry into these male-dominated fields, especially in times of national emergency. The college offered the government the use of its buildings, staff and grounds for a “three month intensive theoretical course in the training of nurses.” The camp would also develop relationships with teaching hospitals in a number of cities that would serve as further training grounds for the prospective nurses once they had graduated from the three-month camp. In effect, the program offered its graduates a shortened nurses training program, from three years to just over two years.

The Nurses Training Camp was modeled on the Citizens Training Military Camps.

The Nurses Training Camp was modeled on the Citizens Training Military Camps.

The Department of Nursing of the American Red Cross, in urgent need of more recruits to aid the wounded abroad and on the home front, saw Vassar’s plan as an innovative way of attracting more women to the nursing profession, and the National Red Cross Foundation donated $75,000 to Vassar’s summer program. In the planning memo for the trustees, Mrs. Blodgett compared the Vassar proposal with the “Plattsburg Movement,” a self-financed summer program begun in 1916 by citizens in upstate New York in which men voluntarily enrolled in Citizens Training Military Camps. As that idea—initially proposed by former Army Chief of Staff Leonard Wood—had spread, over 10,000 men had become “citizen soldiers.” Blodgett wrote, “Here then is a profession, the immediate need of which both for war and for peace is as urgent as foreign-service in time of war. Just as the ‘Plattsburg Idea’ made it possible to train a body of men for the higher grades of military service in a remarkably short time, so the ‘Vassar Idea’ will make it possible to prepare a battalion of women to do that war and peace work for which they are most needed and which is indisputably women’s work.”

With the plan swiftly approved by the board of trustees, a Vassar College Recruiting Committee, in co-operation with the American Red Cross and the Council of National Defense, pushed to attract a wide range of applicants. From recruiting headquarters in New York City at the Women’s University Club, Vassar alumnae began enlisting recruits, and those who applied must have quickly realized what they were getting themselves into. “We shall assume at the outset,” the recruiting pamphlet declared, “that you are not simply a dabbler or a sentimental dreamer, but a serious, practical, patriotic girl or woman sincerely anxious to throw your energies and your abilities into some form of work that is really going to count.” A lighter tone explained the three-month program’s $95 comprehensive fee, which covered registration, tuition, room and board, and laundry services, noting, “a vacation spent at Vassar College will be less expensive than any summer resort!”

Vassar graduates united behind the proposed program in a variety of ways. Several applied to the camp, and New York City alumnae staffed the recruiting center. The Class of 1913 funded three scholarships, The New York Times noted, “in memory of their classmate Miss Anabel Roberts, who was the first American girl to lose her life in active service at the front.” Roberts had died in January, 1918, while on duty at a British base hospital near Etretat, France, and the scholarships, each for $350, were intended to cover both the costs of the summer program and the recipients’ personal expenses for their subsequent two years of hospital training. “The camp to be held at Vassar this Summer,” The Times continued, “will be a Plattsburg for nurses…. It will also prepare educated women to fill administrative and executive positions made vacant by the abnormal demands upon the nursing profession, both at home and abroad.”

From the outset, the plan sought the foremost specialists in medicine and nursing to teach in the camp, and its equipment and facilities were on a par with the highest standards of the best professional schools. A catalogue given to prospective applicants presented a sober and serious glimpse into the purpose of the Nurses Training Camp: “This is not a snap or a short course to the nursing profession and only those should enter who are ready to take the full course of two years and three months.” The prospect of becoming a trained nurse in such times of need drew a large number of applications, and on June 24, 1918, 430 recent college graduates gathered on the Vassar campus to start their three-month adventure. For many it was also the start of impressive careers in professional medicine. 

The student nurses assembled at the Students’ Building. Dean Herbert Mills is seated to the left of the man in the black suit.
The student nurses assembled at the Students’ Building. Dean Herbert Mills is seated to the left of the man in the black suit.

As the women from over a hundred educational institutions and 41 states gathered for a summer of intense training in the field of nursing, the Vassar economist Herbert E. Mills, as dean of the Nurses Training Camp, recruited a distinguished medical and nursing faculty from such institutions as Johns Hopkins, Yale, Harvard, NYU and Columbia. Another distinguished Vassar professor, Professor of Psychology Margaret Floy Washburn ‘91, joined the summer program as well. One recruitment document said of the teaching staff, “Each one is an authority in his or her special subject. It is as fine a body of instructors as has ever been assembled for any educational purpose, all animated by patriotism and enthusiasm for the project.” The program offered “instruction in anatomy, physiology, bacteriology, chemistry, dietetics and cookery, hygiene, practical nursing, history and social aspects of nursing, elementary materia medica, and psychology.”

The student nurses studied chemistry in the Vassar Brothers Laboratory.

The student nurses studied chemistry in the Vassar Brothers Laboratory.

The camp also established agreements with regional hospitals. Among the hospitals agreeing to accept the its graduates, thus effectively reducing their course from three to two years, were—in New York—Presbyterian Hospital, Bellevue Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York Post-Graduate Hospital, and Kings County Hospital and Philadelphia General Hospital, in Pennsylvania.

Throughout a fine Hudson Valley summer—and despite the recruiting promise of “a vacation spent at Vassar College”—the students in the Nurses Training Camp spent most of their days on the campus indoors, studying or in the classroom. Each day, they arose with the rising bell at 5:30 A.M., attended up to 8 hours of lectures and one hour of clinic demonstrations, and dedicated two or three hours to individual study. For general medical and surgical study, clinics were held at Vassar Brothers Hospital and at a recently opened tuberculosis camp near Poughkeepsie. Observation clinics for the study of shell shock and other mental troubles were held at the Hudson River State Hospital.

Students were housed in the four residence halls, Lathrop, Davidson, Strong, and Raymond, and most of the summer staff lived in Josselyn. The entirety of the Vassar campus was employed, as classrooms, demonstration rooms, laboratories, the gymnasium, the Chapel, and the library were dedicated to the nursing students. Canteen cooking classes were offered in all of the dorm’s kitchens, and the wide corridors of Main Building were set up as mock-hospital wards. Some undergraduates left behind their furniture and other personal items to welcome the summer students and make them feel at home, and a sizable group of Vassar students who had offered to stay on campus for the summer worked on the 600-acre farm to supply the camp with fresh produce and dairy.

Although the camp was a rigorous 12-week immersion in nurse training, it recognized the importance of creating a sense of community through recreation. Francis D. Smith ’16, the athletic and social director, worked tirelessly to arrange activities and outings during the summer. When they were not in the classroom or lab, the nursing students enjoyed playing on the athletic fields and tennis courts and canoeing and boating on Sunset Lake. In addition to concerts by community singing groups and Sunday organ recitals, short plays and sketches were put on by the students. Excursions to the city and boat rides on the Hudson River were also popular, and the occasional semiformal was arranged. Some students participated a weekly newspaper, The Thermometer, which continued publication for some months after the program ended. 

“Illustrative of group morale,” recalled Katherine Densford Dreves, an alumna of Oxford College for Women and Miami University, “one day Dean Mills announced in chapel that the next day, July 4, was a holiday. Smiles! He then said we should decide whether we would take a holiday or continue with our regular schedule. A group sigh! And then—cheerfully we continued with our regular schedule.”  That evening, they enjoyed a picnic on Sunset Hill.

418 out of the 435 women who had entered the program in June graduated in September from Vassar’s Nurses Training Camp. The group included alumnae of 117 American colleges and universities—from Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, and Vassar, to institutions in Ohio, the Dakotas, Texas, and California.

Some student nurses formed lifelong friendships, and many went on to distinguished leadership in the field.

Some student nurses formed lifelong friendships, and many went on to distinguished leadership in the field.

The graduates of Vassar’s summer program gained a unique perspective on medicine. Of the original enrollees, 169—42%—completed full nursing certification. Nine graduates would go on to become doctors of medicine, and many went on to become leaders in nursing and the worlds of medicine and public health, either working in hospitals, becoming superintendents of nurses, instructors in training schools, or writing for medical reviews. One graduate became the head of nursing services at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, another headed the University of Minnesota hospital and its training school, and yet another went on to become the dean of nursing at Duke. Several graduates of the camp worked for the Red Cross during World War II, among them Dr. Caroline Helmick. After receiving her M.D. from the University of Minnesota and serving as a physician at Carleton College, Helmick became the assistant director of the Red Cross. 

As it happened, the 1918 program was to have no successful sequel. When the country faced a similar national emergency in1941, Bryn Mawr College developed a similar program, of which Margaret Conrad, an alumna of the 1918 program, was the dean. The effort, however, drew far fewer students than had been expected. Times had changed: women now enjoyed a much stronger position among trained nurses, and American women at the outbreak of World War II sought and were sought for a wide range of war work. The spirit of the pioneers of 1918 was their model. In later years, Katherine Densford Dreves—for almost 30 years the director of the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing and ex-president of the American Nurses Association—reflected on her experience in the summer of 1918: “Imagine daily rising at the crack of dawn, followed by corridor setting-up exercises, bed making and before breakfast, damp dusting your room all around and as high as you could reach (my reach was high). Then came eight hours of class and laboratory, with lights out at 10PM. We had military company formation; I was the elected sergeant of Company F, Squad 1.” 

Related Articles

Herbert Elmer Mills


Gladys Bonner Clappison, Vassar’s Rainbow Division: 1918. Lake Mills, Iowa, 1964. [alt. title: The Training Camp for Nurses at Vassar College: Under the Auspices of the National Council of Defense and the American Red Cross, July 24 to September, Poughkeepsie, New York.]

Katharine Densford Dreves, “Nurses in American History: Vassar Training Camp for Nurses,” The American Journal of Nursing, vol. 75, no. 11 (Nov. 1975).

Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the US Army Nurse Corps, Philadelphia, 1999.

“Nurses Camp at Vassar,” New York Times, April 10, 1918.

Susan Delano McKelvey, “The Nursing Profession and the College Woman,” Vassar Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3 (1918)

Folder 17: Training Camp for Nurses, 17 [Presentation of the Vassar Plan] with notes, Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).

Folder 40:Training Camp for Nurses: Articles, “Public Health Nursing and the War” by Katherine Tucker, (VCSC).

Folder 45: Clippings, “Vassar Nurses’ Camp Still Remembered; Many in Training on College Campus 25 Years Ago Now Leaders in Profession,” Poughkeepsie Sunday New Yorker, Sunday, July 11, 1943 (VCSC).

WW, CJ, 2009