Laura May Nell – Nurses “Over There”

An American Nurse wearing a British Small Box Respirator gas mask. Nurses near the front face many of the same threats, including shellfire, poison gas, and exposure to disease and the stresses of war, as other Soldiers. (Photo Courtesy of USAHEC)

Laura May Nell was born on August 4th, 1882. She grew up in Cumberland County, PA, with her mother, father, and four siblings. After graduating from Camp Hill High School, she trained as a nurse at York Hospital. She then found work as a private nurse and as a Red Cross Instructor.

In early 1918, Laura joined the Army Nurse Corps. She was assigned to Base Hospital #20 in Guyon, France.

Base Hospitals were a partnership between the Army, the American Red Cross, and teaching hospitals around the nation. They were organized and equipped to Army standards ahead of time so that they would be ready if war broke out. Once war started, all they needed to be ready to go was a compliment of enlisted men to serve in semi-skilled and unskilled labor positions. The 20th Base Hospital was organized at the University of Pennsylvania and saw distinguished service in World War I and World War II.

“Base hospitals were of utmost importance during the war, and without them, many men would not have been able to make it home. Once America entered the war with Germany, 25 base hospital units were well underway. The first call for specific aid came to America through the British commission for doctors and nurses. Six of the waiting base hospital units were assigned to duty with the British Expeditionary Force. Base Hospital No. 4 was the first to leave New York in May 1917; No. 5 followed two days later; and then Nos. 2. 12, 21, and 10. The first American flag to fly in alliance over France was at the hospital unit in Rouen.

“In the first seven months after America joined the war, 17 base hospital units were rushed to France, and others were held in readiness for immediate departure. The base hospital and their personnel, organized and equipped by the Red Cross, automatically became part of the Army Organization when they were sent into service overseas.” (Budreau, Lisa M., & Pryor, Richard M., p 27-28)

After serving at Base Hospital Number 20, Laura went to work at Evacuation Hospitals Number 12 and 49 as well as Field Hospital Number 301, between January and August of 1919. In these assignments, she provided care and support for innumerable Soldiers. In August of 1919, Laura received orders to return home from her post in France and returned to the United States, where she was released from active duty.

Nurses on a ward in Base Hospital #20, date unknown. (Photo Courtesy of USAHEC)
Diagram showing the organization of field medical services in World War I. This document highlights how close many in the medical field came to the front. (Photo Courtesy of USAHEC)

Laura would continue to draw on the lessons of her military experience throughout her life. After the war, she served in the U.S. Public Health Corps. After serving as Head Nurse at Sewell’s Point in Norfolk, VA, and in Boise, ID, promoted to Acting Chief Nurse, then Chief Nurse, she eventually became part of a group of nurses called “Dutch Cleansers”. These highly regarded nurses were placed in different hospitals in the Veterans Administration system specifically to fix problems that had arisen. Laura was instrumental in the decision to build a new VA Hospital in Oteen, NC.

On her 100th birthday, the Veterans Administration recognized her with a certificate that reads:

“This certificate is awarded to Miss Laura M. Nell. Upon reaching 100 years of age, she is deserving of recognition for a lifetime of caring for America’s veterans of military service. Following World War I service as a United States Army nurse, Miss Nell continued her service to others in a distinguished nursing career with the Veterans Administration. The same perseverance that carried her through a lifetime of service to others, often under difficult conditions, has aided her in reaching an age and status most of us can only dream of. She is recognized as one of the senior female veterans of military service known to be living in the United States of America. The veterans of America and the employees of the Veterans Administration hold Laura Nell in Highest esteem.” (McDonald)

Laura May Nell died on November 29, 1984, at the age of 102. She is buried near Winston-Salem, NC, where she resided for many years.



Budreau, Lisa M., & Pryor, Richard M., editors. Answering the Call: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 1917-1919: A Commemorative Tribute to Military Nursing in World War I. Wash, DC: Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute, Walter Reed Army Hospital Medical Center

East, Bill. “Nation’s 2nd Oldest Women Veteran Dies”, The Sentinel, November 30, 1984, Winston-Salem, N.C.

McDonald, Kenneth E. Certificate from Veterans Administration Regional Office, Nell, Laura May folder, Army Nurse Corps Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

McLaughlin, Harry. “York Nursing Grad, 99, Oldest WWI Women Veteran”, Sunday Patriot News, April 18, 1982, Harrisburg, PA

__. “Local Veteran Laura Nell Dies”, Winston-Salem Journal, November 29, 1984, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Research Intern: Faith Swarner


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