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

A Salute to Rosemary Theresa McCarthy, RN, PhD, FAAN, Colonel U.S. Army (Retired)

This tribute appeared in the January 2014 issue of Nursing History Review. Its authors are nurse historian colleagues of COL McCarthy: Dr. Barbara Brodie is Emerita Professor of Nursing at the University of Virginia and a fellow founder and former president of the American Association for the History of Nursing. Dr. Eleanor Bjoring is a former professor of nursing history at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University and a major contributor to the endowment of the University of Virginia's Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry.
ANCA is grateful to Nursing History Review for permission to reproduce this article.

Colonel Rosemary McCarthy, ANC

On June 7, 2012, a dear friend and fellow nursing historian Rosemary McCarthy quietly died at the Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville, Maryland, 19 days shy of her 86th birthday. The only child of Mary and Thomas McCarthy, Rosemary was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1926. A bright, talented, energetic, and serious young woman, she graduated from the Arlington High School on D-day, June 6, 1944. This was an important date for Rosemary because Allied troops were landing in France that day to begin the liberation of Europe from German occupation. Such a coincidence may have foretold her future.

Unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, she considered being a physical therapist, artist, or nurse. Because her family was of modest financial circumstances, she selected nursing. At the time, hospital diploma schools of nursing charged little if any tuition. She first applied to the famous Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing but was rejected because they had already "accepted their quota of Irish Catholic Students."1 She was not upset about this decision because the school also used quotas for Jewish and African American students. Encouraged by a family friend who was a nurse, she applied to the McLean Hospital School of Nursing in nearby Waverly. Admitted in 1945, she joined the school's U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps Program because it provided her tuition, uniforms, and books, plus a stipend. In return, upon graduation she was required to serve as a military nurse if needed. Her serving as a cadet nurse during World War II, made Rosemary feel that she was, as other fellow Americans, answering the needs of her county.

As part of her training at McLean, she managed to enjoy some of the educational benefits of "Mass. General" because some of McLean's course work was "done on the medical and surgical floors of Massachusetts General Hospital and at the top ranked Children's Hospital of Boston." Rosemary finished her program in 1948, and because the war had ended in 1945, she wasn't required to serve in the military. She liked the idea of being an army nurse because she believed service to one's country was a duty and honor. Her father, however, was opposed to her joining the army because he did not think that the army was a place for a woman. He made her promise she would not become an army nurse for at least 4 years.2

As a new graduate nurse, she remained at McLean Hospital employed as a staff nurse until she was enticed by her classmates to work with them at the Colorado Springs Psychopathic Hospital. The sudden death of her dad in 1952 freed her from her promise, and with the Korean War in progress, she joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1953 and was commissioned a First Lieutenant. This decision would provide Rosemary with a highly satisfying and interesting 30-year military career that took her to many distant lands. She retired in 1983 as a full Colonel.

During her Army service, she was posted at hospital facilities in Texas, Japan, Korea, California, and Hawaii. In 1956, she was sent to Korea to serve a tour of duty in the 44th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, one of the renowned MASH units. The experience of caring for injured soldiers in a war zone impressed Rosemary and shaped her attitude about the kind of care all military personnel should be provided. After this assignment, she was granted permission to enter the University of Minnesota School of Nursing where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1957.

Her postings for the next dozen years moved her between Army educational and administrative positions in bases across the country and while in these positions she managed to earn a Master's Degree in Nursing at Boston University. She also attended military educational programs at Walter Reed Army Hospital and Institute and the U.S. Army Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. In the early 1970s, she began a doctoral program at the Catholic University of America where she earned a Doctor of Nursing Science in 1974. That degree was later changed to a PhD in 1995. In 1974, Rosemary was also honored by her nursing colleagues when she was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing.

Next sent to Washington, DC, she was appointed the Nursing Consultant in the Directorate of Professional Services in the Office of the Surgeon General, a position she held from 1974 to 1977. Considered by the Army as an excellent educational advisor, Rosemary traveled for 2 years to army bases around the globe to work with their nursing staffs to upgrade their educational programs. Always interested in the history of military medicine, she wrote numerous papers on the role of nurses during wars. These writings were noted by the army’s commanders and they appointed her to the post of the Army Nurse Corps Historian at the Center of Military History in Washington, serving from 1978 to 1982. During her tenure as army nurse historian, Rosemary joined with civilian nurse historians to establish the new International History of Nursing Society in 1980. In 1982, the Society was renamed the American Association for the History of Nursing (AAHN), the organization that Rosemary would be an active member in until age and illness denied her the ability to participate.

After retiring from the service, Rosemary began her second career. She joined the nursing faculty of Catholic University and then at Georgetown University School of Nursing where she taught undergraduate students research and the principles of administration. She also mentored doctoral students during their dissertations. Over the years, many nurse historians were befriended and helped by Rosemary as she opened her home to them when they visited Washington to attend conferences, meetings, or to do research in various archives. Dr. Olga Church, working on the history of the early days of psychiatric nursing, spoke of Rosemary’s generosity and friendship in providing her food, lodging, and stimulating historical discussions on the early days of the profession. Olga noted that her support and friendship lasted for many years and included her two sons. Eleanor Bjoring was another recipient of her warm hospitality and friendship when she attended a two-week archival course at the National Archives.

Rosemary’s deep-seated desire to have her country acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of thousands of military and civilian men and women who served in the Korean War was met when she was appointed by President Reagan to the Advisory Board Planning Committee of the Korean War Memorial in 1983. She steadfastly attended hundreds of committee meetings and sessions with the designers of the memorial to make sure that the efforts of women were acknowledged as crucial members of the U.S. military forces during that war. She provided the designers with many personal war photos and stories. Some of these photos are etched into a wall that is part of the memorial, including one of Rosemary’s dressed in army fatigues at her Korean MASH unit.3 She told a friend that for all the time and effort she expended working on that Committee, she deserved to have her likeness etched there!4 She and her fellow committee members were personally honored and thanked by President Bill Clinton when the memorial was dedicated in 1994.

As noted, Rosemary was one of the early founders of the AAHN. She did this because she believed that the organization, through its efforts to develop the field of nursing history and nurse scholars, was vital to the legitimacy of the profession. She believed that nurse historians possessed a special ability to illuminate and analyze the roles that nurses played in health care over the centuries. She thought that in documenting nurses’ responses to the needs of society, the profession’s values were recognized and enhanced.

Rosemary served on numerous AAHN committees and was elected to several offices on the Executive Board culminating in her election as its president in 1986. One of her lesser known contributions to the organization occurred in 1987 when she joined Joan Lynaugh and Barbara Brodie to initiate and fund the Lavinia L. Dock Award for Exemplary Scholarship and Writing, the first scholarship award given by AAHN. In 1988, she assumed the responsibilities of being the organization’s first Executive Director, a part-time position she held for almost 10 years. In 2003, in recognition of her many years of exceptional service to the organization, she was awarded its highest honor, the AAHN’s President’s Award.

Rosemary was a multi-talented woman who enjoyed many things in life. These included traveling to distant lands, creating unique paintings and drawings, collecting diverse pieces of art that filled her home from top to bottom, good books, and enjoying fine food, drinks, and conversation with friends. One of the highlights of her week occurred every Saturday morning. She and her good friend Doris Lee had breakfast at the same little restaurant near her Capitol Hill home and then visited every yard sale in the vicinity of her home to search for interesting things to add to her collection or to share with friends. Visitors to her home on Saturdays were included in this fun experience and many found it difficult not to get caught up in the fun of collecting. These excursions always ended with a visit to the city’s Eastern Market that was filled with interesting things to eat and do. Among those things was visiting the studio of the famed artist Simmy Knox, known for his official portraits of Thurgood Marshall, William Clinton, and many others. Rosemary had a formal portrait of herself [shown above] done by Knox garbed in her mess dress uniform. This portrait was proudly displayed in her home.5

Rosemary was a devoted Christian who honored God, the nursing profession, her family/friends, and her country. Throughout her life, she generously shared her time, talents, and resources to make the world a better place for all.

1 Rosemary Teresa McCarthy, “Memories of my Life” (circa 2011). Rosemary TeresaMcCarthy Collection, Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, TheUniversity of Virginia School of Nursing (hereafter RTM Collection, ECBCNHI, UVA).
2 Ibid., 2.
3 Rosemary Teresa McCarthy, Correspondence with the Korean Wall MemorialCommittee, RTM Collection, ECBCNHI, UVA.
4 Eleanor Crowder Bjoring, Oral Interview, 2 February 2013.
5 Olga Church to Barbara Brodie, Oral Interview, 4 January 2013.