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

Miss Isabel McIsaac
3d Superintendent, Army Nurse Corps

© Mary T. Sarnecky

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Isabel McIsaac was born in 1858 in Waterloo, Iowa of Scottish parents. McIsaac graduated from Illinois Training School in 1888. Following graduation, she served in a number of administrative positions in the school and became its superintendent in 1905, at which time she conceived and implemented many innovations. McIsaac improved the training program by lengthening it from two to three years. She originated the first teaching demonstrations of various aspects of the nursing arts and was among the first group of educators to grade the students' clinical experiences. She wrote several books and many articles and served in a variety of positions in the professional organizations. In 1898, McIsaac became the president of the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses, the forerunner of the National League of Nursing Education and the National League for Nursing. In 1904, she assumed the presidency of the American Journal of Nursing Company.

That same year, she left the Illinois Training School to write nursing textbooks, settling with her sister on a fruit farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan.1 After spending six years in this rural atmosphere, McIsaac returned to nursing when she accepted a position as interstate secretary of the national nursing organizations and the American Red Cross Nursing Service. This appointment entailed extensive travel to all four corners of the country. Her responsibilities included helping the constituent units of the national organizations to form and fostering state licensure legislation and enrollment in the Red Cross. During this period, McIsaac gained the confidence and regard of a large segment of the nation's nurses. McIsaac had charisma:

. . . Very attractive in appearance with a personality expressing great sincerity, her Scot ancestry was always evident in a certain dry and unfailing humor. Her views were broad and tolerant, and her common sense amounted to a kind of genius.2

On 1 April 1912, McIsaac became the third superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps. She simultaneously accepted the positions of vice-chairman of the Red Cross Nursing Service, secretary of the American Journal of Nursing Company, and vice-president and later acting president of the American Nurses' Association.3 The demands of these various challenging positions exacted a heavy toll on McIsaac's health. After only a year and a half, her physical condition was so debilitated that she had to resign the superintendency. McIssac died in Walter Reed Hospital just twenty days after her resignation on 21 September 1914, a victim of pernicious anemia, a then fatal disease of the blood.4 Until her death, McIsaac worked constantly, rarely taking time off. Jane Delano explained that:

She has been ailing all summer, but we were all hoping that she would be able to get home. She was finally taken to the Walter Reed Hospital and died on Monday, the 21st. It has been a great grief and sorrow to me, for I have seen her failing steadily all summer, but could not seem to convince her that she ought to go home.5

Though her tenure as superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps was short-lived, McIsaac was well-loved and admired for both her warm personality and her professional achievements.

  1. McIsaac chronicled her years at this farm, which she called "A New Cranford," in a fascinating series of articles in the American Journal of Nursing. She, her sister, two boys from an orphanage, and a cat chose the agrarian lifestyle as an alternative to a squalid existence in a cramped back hall bedroom of an urban boarding house. Her humorous account of life among the apples, pears, plums, strawberries and asparagus highlights the antics of a recalcitrant horse, William the Conqueror, who regularly upended their sleigh; a cow duo, Nancy and Dinah, whose milk dried up as a result of an inadvertent ingestion of sour apples; and the tale of the one survivor of 200 chicks purchased by mail and carefully nurtured in an incubator. Isabel McIsaac, "A New Cranford: Being A More Or Less True Account Of An Experiment," American Journal of Nursing 5 (December 1904): 156-159; (January 1905): 237-239; (February 1905): 297-299; (March 1905): 358-360; (April 1905): 424-426; (May 1905): 495-498; 6 (January 1906): 225-228; 7 (December 1906): 171-172; (March 1907): 464-465; 8 (October 1907): 36-39; (December 1907): 182-184; "A Visit to Cranford Farm," American Journal of Nursing 9 (July 1909): 721-722.
  2. Dock et al., 101.
  3. The Associated Alumnae changed its name in 1911, becoming the American Nurses' Association.
  4. Clara Sanford Lockwood, "Isabel McIsaac," Pacific Coast Journal of Nursing 10 (December 1914): 532-533; "Change in Head of Army Nurse Corps," Pacific Coast Journal of Nursing 10 (October 1914): 435; Janet Milauskas, "Isabel McIssac, 1858-1914," in Vern L. Bullough, Olga Maranjian Church, & Alice P. Stein, American Nursing, A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1988): 220-223; Blanchfield & Standlee, vol 1, 62; Stimson & Associates, 86, 89-90.
  5. Clarke, 60.