The resting place of 653 nurses who heroically served in the U.S. armed forces, Section 21 is sometimes known as the "Nurses Section." Against a background of evergreens, an 11-foot-tall white Tennessee marble statue appears to gaze reverently upon the deceased nurses that lie before her. Representing "The Spirit of Nursing," the figure wears simple attire with her hair pinned up, a practical style many early twentieth-century nurses adopted while working.
In September 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a request that "a suitable and respectable monument be erected to the Unknown Nurse in Arlington Cemetery." The Army's quartermaster general, responsible for all new memorials at the cemetery, denied the request, arguing that no unknown nurses were buried at Arlington. However, the superintendent of the Army Nurses Corp and the Navy Nurses Corp, Major Julia C. Stimson, continued advocating for a monument in memory of the Army and Navy nurses interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In May 1937, Roosevelt's secretary of war granted this request, and the quartermaster general approved the erection of "some suitable monument" on a rounded knoll south of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson's tomb.
Although the Commission of Fine Arts had suggested a male sculptor, Frances Rich was ultimately chosen to design the memorial. The daughter of silent film star Irene Rich, Frances Rich was a Smith College-educated artist and actress who studied sculpture with acclaimed teachers in the United States and Europe, appeared in six Hollywood films and, during World War II, enlisted in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), in which she served as special assistant to the director. One of Rich's best-known works, the Nurses Memorial beautifully exemplifies art deco classicism. Characteristics of this style, popular during the 1930s, include gently curving forms and long, vertical lines of movement.
Unveiled in 1938, the statue initially honored nurses who died during their service in the Army or Navy. Its meaning has since expanded to include all nurses who served in the U.S. armed forces. In July 1970, Navy Capt. Delores Cornelius, deputy director of the Navy Nurse Corps, received authorization to install a bronze plaque over the existing inscription on the Nurses Memorial. The plaque reads, "This monument was erected in 1938 and rededicated in 1971 to commemorate devoted service to country and humanity by Army, Navy and Air Force Nurses."