Preserving Our Past, Capitalizing on the Present, Embracing the Future

Colonel Margaret Harper
11th Chief, Army Nurse Corps

© Mary T. Sarnecky

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Margaret Harper was born on 23 July 1911 and raised in her birthplace, Potomac, Illinois. As a young woman, Harper enjoyed an outdoor life and sporting activities. The superintendent of her training school noted that during the course of her nurse's training Harper was accidentally shot while hunting. In addition, Harper revealed that horseback riding was a life long avocation. The young Harper attended college for two years and then entered the Evanston General Hospital School of Nursing, graduating in 1934. In the seven year period before she joined the Army Nurse Corps, she worked as a superintendent of nurses at Chicago Memorial Hospital in Illinois and at Murry Hospital in Butte, Montana.1

Harper's military nursing career began as a general duty nurse at Fort Lewis, Washington, in 1941 just before the outbreak of war. Her next assignment was in the South Pacific. There she served as chief nurse of the 155th Station Hospital in Australia and as advance base chief nurse in New Guinea.2 In 1944, Harper was assigned for a short while at Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. She then joined the 123d Evacuation Hospital as chief nurse at Camp Rucker, Alabama, in 1945 and accompanied the unit to the European Theater. She subsequently served as chief nurse of the 59th Field Hospital and the 120th Station Hospital in Europe. After World War II, Harper attended Teachers' College, Columbia University and earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing education. Following her academic assignment, Harper put her new knowledge to use writing and editing extension courses at the Medical Field Service School, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. In 1949, she transferred to the Army hospital at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where she served as chief nurse for two years. In 1951, she became chief nurse of First Army in New York and followed that assignment with another stint at Columbia University during which she earned a master's degree in nursing service administration in 1953. Harper then transferred to Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where she held several supervisory positions. Her tenure there culminated in assignment as Nursing Service Personnel Coordinator, presumably a position synonymous with that of chief nurse. In 1955, Harper became the assistant chief of the corps under Colonel Inez Haynes and followed that assignment with her final position as chief of the Army Nurse Corps. She served as chief from 1 September 1959 until 31 August 1963.

By all accounts, Harper's resolute leadership style featured an intriguing blend of humor and candor. One co-worker described her as having "a real down-to-earth philosophy."3 An example of her unique personal qualities can be found in a letter she wrote to a chief nurse at Fort Hood, Texas, informing her post factum of her selection for a new assignment to Fort Belvoir, Virginia. After delivering her news, Harper explained:

. . . you told me long ago that you would accept any assignment that I asked you to make. . . .
I hope our plans will make you happy, but in face of our requirements, as projected, the Military District of Washington is the assignment in which we feel you can be best utilized at this time. In other words, I am not giving you a choice but if you have any strange justifiable objection, please let me know and I will attempt to give your objection due consideration. . . . 4

After her retirement in 1963, Harper returned to Illinois; later she moved to the state of Colorado. Still later, she settled in the Army Retirement Community in San Antonio, Texas, where she died on 13 December 2000 after a long period of declining health.5

  1. Elizabeth W. Odell, superintendent, who completed form-- "United States Army Nurse Corps, Certificate from School of Nursing," 19 July 1941; "DA Form 66B," Margaret Harper; both in ANC Archives, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C.
  2. While on duty in New Guinea, Harper always carried a personal handgun and drove her own jeep. She was a woman in advance of her times. Interview with Colonel Mary Bateman Connell, 23 January 1996 at Fort Myer, Virginia.
  3. Florence Oblensky, "Eleven Women--And the Army Nurse," The Retired Officer 19 (January-February 1963): 32-33.
  4. Margaret Harper to Robena C. Anderson, 6 April 1961, typewritten letter, ANC Archives, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C.
  5. "In Memoriam," The Connection, Retired Army Nurse Corps Association 26 (March 2001): 2.