Joyce Winchester was just 18 when she entered the Butterworth Hospital School of Nursing in February of 1945. She and 17 other young women joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, pledging to help fill the nursing void created during World War II, when many doctors and nurses traveled overseas to serve their country.

The war ended three months later, but Winchester’s nursing career spanned a good portion of the next four decades.

“Cadet nurses were such an important part of the war effort,” said Winchester, now 88 and living in Byron Center, Mich. “It seems that their story has been lost in history, and that’s a shame.”

Between 1943 and 1945, a recruiting effort by the U.S. government attracted nearly 180,000 young women to nursing schools across the country, including five schools in Michigan. The government agreed to pay tuition and expenses for the nursing students. In turn, the women had to work in U.S. hospitals, at least until the war ended.

Then and Now

How have nurses’ roles and responsibilities changed over the past 50-plus years? Here are some duties from days gone by, according to members of the reunion committee:

  • Needles were cleaned, sharpened and reused after sterilization.
  • Emergency room nurses were trained by the doctors.
  • Charting was done on paper.
  • A nurse could be sent to any unit in the hospital, often with no orientation.
  • Nurses often calculated medication dosages.

“We were a sisterhood of nurses. I can tell you the names of all the girls I graduated with,” Winchester said, adding that only two of her classmates are alive today.

While the women were not an official part of the military, they were important to the war effort and, as such, are listed in the registry at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Each student received a gray skirt and jacket that was accented with red epaulettes and a red and white cadet nurse emblem on the left shoulder. One of the uniforms is on display in the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital History Room.

“The uniforms were for special occasions and we stopped wearing them once the war was over. Otherwise, we had a white uniform,” Winchester said.

She is among the more than 200 nurses and former nurses gathering this weekend to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Butterworth Hospital School of Nursing and to reunite with many classmates and former co-workers.

The weekend will be a time to acknowledge the military service of nurses, “including three of my classmates who were in Vietnam,” said Rose Ellyn Van Buren, president of the Butterworth Hospital Alumni Association and a 1964 graduate of the Butterworth nursing school.

The school, which included a residence for students, was founded in 1890 as St. Mark’s Hospital Training School of Nurses. The first graduating class consisted of six diploma nurses. It became Butterworth Hospital School of Nursing in 1894.

Winchester, who always wanted to be a nurse, enrolled a half-century later, at a time when diploma nurses were mainstays in hospitals and gave every patient a daily back rub and a bath.

“Nursing is totally different today. We didn’t have the scientific education or the technology,” said Winchester, who has been active in the alumni association for many years and is an emeritus member of the Spectrum Health Foundation.

As hospitals began to hire more and more nurses with college degrees, demand for diploma nurses waned. The school closed in 1985.

The capstone to Winchester’s nursing career came in the 1970s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1971, she returned to the Butterworth Hospital School of Nursing as an instructor. For 10 years, she taught nursing students about IV lines, injections, blood pressure monitoring, dispensing medications and, yes, daily back rubs and baths.

“Those were my best 10 years. It was great to watch them with patients, to see how they grew and matured,” Winchester said. “That’s what I miss most, being with those young people.”