Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Florence Aby Blanchfield (1 April 1882–12 May 1971), superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, was born in Riverton, Warren County, to Joseph Plunkett Blanchfield, a stonemason and railroad worker, and Mary Louvenia Anderson Blanchfield, a practical nurse. Blanchfield was the second of three daughters, all of whom became nurses, and fifth of nine children. The family moved frequently but resided in the village of Oranda in Shenandoah County long enough for Blanchfield to attend local schools and the private Oranda Institute in 1898–1899.

Motivated to pursue a career in nursing by the death of one of her brothers, Blanchfield enrolled in the South Side Hospital Training School for Nurses in Pittsburgh. After graduating in 1906, she worked in Baltimore as a private-duty nurse and studied at the sanatorium of Howard Atwood Kelly, a key figure in the development of the field of gynecology and a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Blanchfield entered medical administration, serving from 1909 to 1913 as director of the nursing school and superintendent of the fifty-six-bed Suburban General Hospital in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. She left that hospital to broaden her knowledge of nursing, working for a year in the Panama Canal Zone and then attending business school for two years while employed as emergency surgical nurse for a large plant of the United States Steel Corporation near Pittsburgh. She returned to Suburban General in 1916.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Blanchfield volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps and served in France as acting chief nurse at American Expeditionary Force Camp Hospital 15 from December 1917 to January 1919. With the war's end she returned temporarily to her former post at Suburban General but rejoined the ANC in January 1920 and became a first lieutenant in June when ANC officers achieved ranks similar to army officers but without the same authority, pay, or privileges. Her career in the small, peacetime military took her to hospitals in Michigan, Indiana, California, the Philippines, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Missouri, and China before she was assigned in 1935 to the surgeon general's staff in Washington. Four years later, as the United States prepared for war, she was promoted to the rank of captain and made the assistant to the superintendent of the ANC.

After the United States entered World War II, Blanchfield received a temporary army commission as lieutenant colonel on 13 March 1942. Although she and the superintendent, a colonel, wore the insignia of their ranks, they were denied the pay of that grade, a decision that exacerbated the long-standing anger of ANC members with the army's refusal to grant nurses full military status. The number of nurses on active duty nearly doubled in the first six months after Pearl Harbor, and the ANC hurried to establish training programs for the newcomers. Meanwhile the superintendent fell ill late in January 1943, and Blanchfield became acting superintendent. On 1 June 1943, following her predecessor's retirement, Colonel Florence Blanchfield took the oath as the seventh superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps.

Blanchfield's most important task was to oversee efficiently the vast increase in the ANC's numbers necessitated by a burgeoning military. Rather than create a new Army School of Nursing, civilian nursing schools were authorized to prepare cadet nurses, who then entered active service via new basic-training schools proposed by Blanchfield, where they learned military regulations. She assigned surgical nurses to hospitals near the front lines for the first time. When the war ended in 1945, more than 57,000 army nurses were serving in domestic and overseas hospitals.

Blanchfield campaigned for permanent rank and status in the army for the ANC. Without rank, she argued, nurses had no clearly defined role, and the ANC might be supplanted by the new Women's Army Corps, whose officers did receive permanent commissions. Through articles, interviews, and effective lobbying, she pressed her case. On 22 June 1944 Congress granted army nurses temporary army commissions with full pay and privileges of their ranks, but only for the duration of the war plus six months. After the war they were also made eligible for all veterans' benefits, but not until 16 April 1947, with passage of the Army-Navy Nurse Act, did nurses gain permanent commissioned-officer status. Blanchfield received army serial number N-1 and thus became the first woman to hold a permanent commission in the U.S. Army, which was presented to her by General Dwight D. Eisenhower on 18 July 1947.

On 30 September 1947 Blanchfield retired after nearly three decades of active duty. The army had awarded her the Distinguished Service Medal on 14 June 1945 for her leadership during the war, and the International Red Cross recognized her in 1951 with the Florence Nightingale Medal, nursing's highest honor. Her longtime advocacy of sports for women was honored in 1956 when the all-army women's tennis singles championship trophy was named for her. In retirement she lived in Arlington with a sister and brother-in-law and collaborated with Mary W. Standlee on an unpublished history of the Army Nurse Corps. Florence Aby Blanchfield died of heart disease on 12 May 1971 at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C., and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. A military hospital named after her was dedicated in September 1982 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the first such facility named for a woman.

Sources Consulted:
Records of Army Nurse Corps, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pa.; Records of Surgeon General's Office, Record Group 112, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Florence Blanchfield Collection, Nursing Archives at Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.; Birth Register, Warren Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Current Biography (1943): 53–55 (portrait); Vern L. Bullough, Olga Maranjian Church, and Alice P. Stein, eds., American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary (1988), 36–41; Robert V. Piemonte and Cindy Gurney, eds., Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps (1987), 13–15, 20–21; Elizabeth A. Shields, "A History of the United States Army Nurse Corps (Female): 1901–1937" (Ed.D. dissertation, Columbia University Teachers College, 1980), 111; Susanne Teepe Gaskins, "G.I. Nurses at War: Gender and Professionalization in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Riverside, 1994), 106–121, 311–314; Barbara Brooks Tomblin, G.I. Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World War II (1996), 187–189, 202, 207; New York Times, 16 Mar. 1942, 11 Feb., 2 June 1943, 15 June 1945, 19 July 1947; Florence A. Blanchfield, "New Status in Military Nursing: Peacetime Opportunities in the Army Nurse Corps," American Journal of Nursing 47 (1947): 603–605; obituaries in New York Times, 13 May 1971, and Washington Post, 14 May 1971.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by D'Ann Campbell.

How to cite this page:
D'Ann Campbell,"Florence Aby Blanchfield (1882–1971)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Blanchfield_Florence_Aby, accessed [today's date]).

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