In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee was named acting assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Army, making her the only woman permitted to wear an officer's uniform. She was instrumental in organizing the 1,600 nurses who served during the conflict and wrote the Army Reorganization Act of 1901, which established the Army Nurse Corps as a permanent unit.
Anita Newcomb's childhood and her family's social status afforded her a multitude of educational and professional opportunities. Her parents were both respected intellectuals and academics and her mother, in particular, encouraged her daughter to pursue diverse academic subjects. Educated at home and in elite private schools in the nation's capital, she was later able to travel to Cambridge, England, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, to take special courses. She pursued interests in history and genealogy, even writing and delivering lectures on these topics.
In 1888, she married William John McGee, who supported her decision to attend medical school soon after they were married. After earning her doctor of medicine degree from Columbian University (later George Washington University) in 1892, and gaining experience in political organization, she completed an internship at the Women's Clinic in Washington, D.C., and studied gynecology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For the next few years, Dr. McGee operated a private practice before withdrawing from clinical work around 1895 to pursue other interests.
Anita McGee's talent for political organization served her during her early career in medicine. During her senior year in medical school at Columbian, a group of male students reportedly used "debased" gestures involving cadavers in an attempt to insult their female peers. In response, the medical staff used the incident as a pretext for ending the school's coeducation policy. Rallying her fellow women students, McGee served on the committee to prevent their removal from the school. Revealing herself a capable organizer and strategist, McGee used every argument she could musterasserting that friends of women's higher education would denounce the faculty board, that medical standards in Washington would decline as women were forced to attend lesser institutions, and appealing to school pride, noting that rival Georgetown University would soon surpass Columbian as a result of unprogressive policies. Despite a politically savvy campaign, the petition drive failed.
Taking advantage of her social position and her talent for organization, Dr. McGee became involved in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Women's Anthropological Society of America, and Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1898 with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Dr. McGee discovered through friends that Army Surgeon General George M. Sternberg intended to use nurses at base hospitals for the first time since the Civil War. She petitioned Sternberg to permit only fully qualified nurses to serve. Dr. McGee created a special committee of the Daughters of the American Revolution to screen nurses and then offered their services to Sternberg. After assembling approximately 1,600 highly qualified nurses, Dr. McGee was appointed acting assistant surgeon general of the Army for the duration of the war, becoming the only woman authorized to wear an officer's uniform. At the end of the war, she drafted the legislation that established the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
Dr. McGee helped the Navy establish a nursing corps two years later, and in 1899 wrote a manual on nursing for the military. She also helped found the Society of Spanish-American War Nurses in 1900 to look after the interests of the Army Nurse Corps, and served as the organization's president for the next six years. In 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War, she Dr. McGee offered the Society's services to the Japanese government. Spending six months in Japan working beside nurses in that country, McGee was designated "superior of nurses" with the rank of an army officer. For her services, the Japanese government honored her with the Imperial Order of the Sacred Crown. She later briefly lectured on hygiene at the University of California, Berkeley, and for the rest of her life, divided her time between several homes and overseeing her son's education.