Dunlap, Lillian (1922–2003)

By: Robert Felder

Type: Biography

Published: October 11, 2021

Updated: October 11, 2021

Lillian Dunlap, who rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as the fourteenth chief of the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, was born to Ira Dunlap, a machinist, and Mary (Schermerhorn) Dunlap on January 20, 1922, in Mission, Texas. The family moved to San Antonio, Texas, when she was six months old, then moved frequently within the city as well as in Harlandale. Much of her childhood revolved around church, school, and family. The eldest daughter of five, Lillian excelled in school, despite changing schools often, and graduated at the age of sixteen from Jefferson High School in San Antonio in 1938. Because her father was Baptist, and her mother was Methodist, and they lacked a car, her family regularly walked to the nearest church of either tradition. Her parents taught Sunday school, and her father sang in the choir. She also helped her family make tamales to sell at church bazaars. Due to her ecumenical upbringing, she learned religious tolerance and respect from an early age. This attribute, which became an asset in her military career, was reinforced when she later attended the Santa Rosa Hospital School of Nursing, which was affiliated with the College of the Incarnate Word, Roman Catholic institution, in San Antonio (see CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE). While in nursing school Dunlap learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the Army Student Nurse Corps.

On November 16, 1942, she entered the military as a second lieutenant in the Army Nursing Corps and was stationed at Brooke General Hospital (later Brooke Army Medical Center) at Fort Sam Houston. The young nurse, then, crisscrossed the United States for military training in medical units at three army camps in California and Arkansas before departing on the West Point (AP-23) almost a year later. The young female officer cared for the sick and wounded in makeshift and quickly constructed hospitals in Dobodura, New Guinea, where the reality of war conditions necessitated that she swiftly learned procedures that exceeded her training. In 1944 she and her unit set up a hospital on Los Negros Island of the Admiralty Islands. Each nurse was responsible for a ward of 100 patients during each shift. She also served in Papau, Micronesia, and in the Philippines. In later interviews, she explained her service included medical care for Japanese soldiers and nurses held as prisoners by the U. S. military as well as Filipino women and children tortured by Japanese soldiers. After Dunlap served three years and seven months, she was promoted to first lieutenant.

In November 1945, with the fighting of World War II finished, Dunlap rotated back to the United States and to Fort Sam Houston, where she was admitted to Brooke General Hospital with recurring malaria. Instead of leaving the Army Nursing Corps as she had initially planned in 1942, she extended her service to regular duty and started a thirty-year career. However, the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947, which recognized the Army Nurse Corps as part of the regular U. S. Army, limited the promotion of female officers and required Dunlap to return to the rank of second lieutenant even though she wore the insignia and carried the responsibilities of a captain.

After a couple of brief assignments at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, and Fort Hood, Texas, Dunlap received orders in 1950 to report to the Fourth United States Army headquartered in San Antonio. While there she helped organize the Women in the Uniformed Services Recruiting Team with her counterparts from other military branches and developed a recruitment program for nurses. With the onset of the Korean War, the U. S. military faced a shortage of qualified nurses, and many nurses in the reserves had married after World War II, which barred them from active service. The team spoke to groups at events and media appearances set up by the Texas Business and Professional Women’s Club throughout the state. She and Lt. Cmdr. Elizabeth Roby Leighton, the WAVES (women of the United States Naval Reserve) officer, attended the first Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services meeting in Washington, D. C. and presented the team’s unified recruiting technique, which soon became the model. In addition to recruiting, Dunlap represented San Antonio at the American Nurses’ Convention in Atlantic City where five nursing organizations merged into  the American Nurses’ Association (ANA) and the National League for Nursing (NLN).

At three and a half years, the army offered Dunlap the opportunity to finish her undergraduate degree in one year, which she did at the College of the Incarnate Word (later University of Incarnate Word) in San Antonio. After graduation in 1954, Dunlap received orders to serve in Germany. After three years there and a promotion to the rank of major, she moved back to the United States for an assignment at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After only nine months at her assignment at Fort Jackson, Dunlap returned to Fort Sam Houston in order to start her master’s in nursing administration through the Army-Baylor Hospital Administration Course. After receiving her degree, Dunlap completed her residency at the Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, and received orders to teach at the Medical Field Service School (MFSS).

In 1960, having completed her master’s degree in nursing administration, Dunlap added teaching to her prodigious list of accomplishments. Even though she had eighteen years of service behind her, Dunlap had never taught and had little interest in teaching, but after only one year, she became the deputy director of the Nursing Science Division. A couple of years later, she moved up from deputy director to division director. Soon after Dunlap was the first army nurse selected and had the qualifications to become an assistant professor of hospital administration at Baylor. Dunlap’s desire to emphasize the importance of body, mind, and spirit in nursing inspired her to organize a Thanksgiving breakfast at 6:30 in the morning on the day that students left to see their families. Despite the inconvenient time, more than 150 students attended. While continuing her teaching and administrative responsibilities, Dunlap also represented Army nurses in the Texas Nurses Association, Texas League for Nursing, and on a broader level at the National League for Nursing, where she served on a committee to evaluate nursing service administration. During Dunlap’s time at MFSS, she participated in a training exercise, called Exercise Blowup, that included a simulation of an atomic explosion at Camp Bullis and was part of the mass casualty and nuclear medicine courses. The exercise was done in coordination with Dr. Truman G. Blocker, Jr., and the students at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

After five years at the MFSS, Dunlap, then a lieutenant colonel, received orders to go to Okinawa, Japan, as chief nurse of a 250-bed hospital and arrived in late 1965. The hospital was one of three off-shore American hospitals close to Vietnam. With the increased number of American soldiers deployed to Vietnam, Dunlap enlarged the 250-bed hospital to 600 beds by reclaiming some enlisted living areas to service the sick and wounded and by reorganizing existing rooms for more efficient care. In addition to regular responsibilities, in March 1966 Dunlap and her team were alerted to prepare for possible emergency care of astronauts Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong, the flight crew of Gemini 8, after a thruster malfunction forced NASA to abort the mission and change the landing site to the South China Sea. Dunlap later called it an “emergency exercise” as neither crewmember was injured.

After only eleven months Dunlap received new orders to serve in the United States Surgeon General’s office as chief of the Army Nurse Corps Assignment Branch, a position that typically went with a rank of full colonel. Her superior, however, passed her over for promotion and moved her to a special assistant position in the same office. After a little more than a year, Dunlap received orders to serve as chief nurse of the First Army, headquartered in Maryland, and on December 31, 1969, she was promoted to colonel. She spent three years with First Army, then had a short assignment as chief nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

On June 11, 1970, Dunlap and other military nurses celebrated the promotions of the first women brigadier generals in the U. S. Armed Services: Chief of the Army Nurse Corps Anna Mae Hays and Director of the Women’s Army Corps Elizabeth P. Hoisington. Public Law 90-130, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, made these promotions possible by removing restrictions on military ranks for female officers and allowing for the promotion to general for women.

On September 1, 1971, Lillian Dunlap received the rank of brigadier general and the responsibility of leading the entire Army Nurse Corps as its chief. In Dunlap’s self-estimation, the increased educational and training from the Army Nurse Clinician Program and the raised educational requirements and opportunities stand as the most significant achievements of her time as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps When she retired from the army after thirty-three years of service, she had been awarded, among others, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Army Commendation with Oak Leaf Cluster, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four battle stars, and from the Republic of the Philippines, the Philippine Liberation Medal with one battle star.

After retirement from the military in 1975, she continued to exercise her leadership skills as a member on the boards of the Texas National Guard Armory, College of the Incarnate Word, Government Personnel Mutual Life Insurance, and the National Bank of Fort Sam Houston, where she had an account from the beginning of her military career. She also served as an advisor for the Retired Army Nurse Corps Association, Nursing Advisory Council, and Habitat for Humanity, as president of the Army Medical Department Museum Foundation, and she was a member of the San Antonio Women’s Celebration and Hall of Fame and the Army Retirement Residence Foundation. In recognition of her leadership and contributions to the field of nursing and the Army Nurse Corps, Incarnate Word awarded her an honorary doctor of science degree and established an endowed chair in nursing in her honor. As another example of her enduring influence, Brooke Army Medical Center established their Excellence in Nursing Award in her name. In 1987 Governor William P. Clements, Jr., inducted Dunlap into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.

Brig. Gen. Lillian Dunlap died on April 3, 2003, at Brooke Army Medical Center, and she was interred with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. That month both the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate offered resolutions to express condolences to her surviving sisters and honor Dunlap’s service. In San Antonio, where Dunlap spent so much of her life, a River Walk barge was named The General Lil in her honor.

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“Brigadier General Lillian Dunlap,” Women’s International Center (http://www.wic.org/bio/ldunlap.htm), accessed September 16, 2021. Cynthia A. Gurney, 33 Years of Army Nursing: An Interview with Brigadier General Lillian Dunlap(Washington, D.C.: United States Army Nurse Corps, 2001). Maria Nora Olivares, interview with Lillian Dunlap, August 2, 1990, University of Texas at San Antonio. Ruthe Winegarten, Interview with Lillian Dunlap, April 19, 1997, University of Texas at San Antonio.

  • Health and Medicine
  • Nurses and Nurse Administrators
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert Felder, “Dunlap, Lillian,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dunlap-lillian.

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October 11, 2021
October 11, 2021

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