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Janet Hanneman McNulty: KU School of Nursing alumna and Peace Corps legend

A 1958 graduate of KU School of Nursing, McNulty improved care and conditions in a mental hospital in Pakistan and recruited countless nurses around the world to the profession.

Archival photo of nurse Janet Hanneman McNulty standing among patients and local nurses in Pakistan
Janet Hanneman McNulty, shown here at work in Pakistan, became the face of the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Photo: Getty Images.

This story about an extraordinary alumna is the first in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of KU School of Nursing, which began as a nurse training program in 1906 and became its own school in 1974.


When we think about nurses in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we don’t usually think about someone rappelling down a cliff, leading an entire hospital on the other side of the world or advising U.S. presidents. We may think about them serving their patients with great dedication, advocating for underserved populations and balancing their domestic duties as a wife and mother with their vocation as a nurse.

Janet Hanneman McNulty, a 1958 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Nursing and a volunteer in the Peace Corps shortly after its establishment in 1961, did all those things — and more.

Extraordinary beginnings

Although she was born during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of rural Kansas, Janet Fern Hanneman grew up in a linguistically and culturally rich and diverse world. She was born in a small limestone cottage with neither plumbing nor electricity on her grandparents’ farm near Lincoln, Kansas. Her grandmother spoke Swedish, Norwegian, German, Danish and English — all languages spoken in the surrounding Kansas communities. Janet’s mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Her father’s first language was German until the outbreak of World War I, following which he spoke English with precision and always in full sentences.

In 1941, the family moved to Washington, Kansas, where Janet, the oldest of five children, graduated from high school in 1954. Located in the north central part of the state, Washington was a cosmopolitan town of about 1,500. Farel Lobaugh, a World War I veteran of the trenches in France, had returned to Washington, where he practiced law, listened to classical music, collected art books and, along with his wife, supported young people in going to KU, including Janet. Next door to the Hanneman family lived the Huntleys, a physician and a nurse who served as medical missionaries in the 1930s in Sierra Leone, and their children. Janet and Carolyn Huntley, classmates and best friends, both took Mr. Darby’s high school biology class, which they said made college biology seem easy as they prepared to become a nurse and a pediatrician, respectively.

“Washington was an extraordinary community in which to grow up,” said Janet’s sister, Donna Hanneman Kerr, Ph.D. (Columbia University), professor emeritus and former academic vice provost at the University of Washington. Eight years younger than Janet, Kerr says that her big sister was her North Star: “This community enabled me, but for me Janet led the way, giving me a large horizon.”  

Faraway places, unusual responsibilities
Portrait of Janet Hanneman McNulty
Janet Hanneman McNulty, a 1958
graduate of KU School of Nursing,
was among the first volunteers in
the Peace Corps.

Janet graduated from the nursing program at KU with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1958. The following year, she worked as a psychiatric nurse at Maudsley Hospital in London, England, and then studied for another year as a Rotary Fellow in New Zealand. When President Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961, it seemed like the perfect fit. Janet was one of the first nurses to serve abroad in the Peace Corps. “With uncles who served in World War II and a younger brother already in the Air Force, she jumped at the opportunity to serve her country,” said Jim McNulty, Janet’s husband.

Janet received only 30 days’ notice that she would be shipping out, first for Peace Corps training in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. A photo of her rappelling down a cliff captured the high expectations and the excitement of the time. Even before she arrived in her host country of then West Pakistan, Janet was already unintentionally recruiting for the Peace Corps.

At the Government Mental Hospital in Lahore, Janet used her nursing education to improve basic conditions so quickly that she became well respected despite still being in her 20s. “Ultimately, she was put in charge of leading the development of care in the entire mental hospital,” said Kerr.

The founding director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, described Janet by name in a speech in 1963:

"Witness Janet Hanneman, a Peace Corps nurse in Pakistan. She was sent to work in a hospital for the mentally ill in Lahore. Her mode of transportation is a bicycle; three times she has had accidents. After the last accident she carried her arm in a splint for six weeks. When it was healed, she suffered a brain concussion while riding in a motorcycle rickshaw that careened into a ditch; she went on to work and did not discover the concussion until later in the day. That put her to bed for a few days. She recovered. Then three attacks of amoebic hepatitis put her in the hospital as a patient for periods of 8 days, 19 days, and 25 days. But 'Give Up' is not in Janet Hanneman’s vocabulary, and she is back at work in Lahore today, the only psychiatric nurse in all of Pakistan. Not only has she returned to work — she has extended her tour of duty for another year. There are thousands of Volunteers like Janet Hanneman serving in the Peace Corps tonight. They have surprised the world with their patience, compassion, determination, integrity, and dedication.”

Face of the Peace Corps

When Janet returned from her extended service in West Pakistan, she was featured in a 1965 Life magazine article that discussed Peace Corps volunteers re-integrating into U.S. society. That article was the first to make “culture shock” a household term in the United States. It also explained why Janet was so beloved both in the Peace Corps and in West Pakistan. “For two and a half years in Pakistan, she almost single-handedly pushed through an astonishing number of improvements — a bed for every patient, the hospital’s first psychiatric research, even a cheerier shade of paint on the wall,” wrote Richard B. Stolley in the March 19, 1965, issue of Life.  

"Volunteers like Janet Hanneman McNulty ventured into the unknown; and their passion and drive continues to be an inspiration to us all. Decades later, we see the transformational impact of working side by side, across difference, in a spirit of true partnership."

Once back in the United States, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a recruiter for the Peace Corps. Janet was recognized by strangers on the street because she appeared in recruiting films and was interviewed on talk shows and radio stations, speaking about everything from how nurses could benefit the Peace Corps to how to manage culture shock when volunteers returned home.  

When she was in Washington, a letter arrived at the Hanneman home in Junction City, Kansas, addressed to “Miss Janet, Kansas, USA.” It was from one of her patients in Pakistan. “Apparently those in the Postal Service recognized her from the article in Life magazine. To me it is both touching that one of the patients reached out to her and amazing that the letter found its way to her,” Kerr said.

Today’s Peace Corps remembers the impact of those early volunteers. “The Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the early years of the agency laid the foundation for all who came after them,” said Carol Spahn, the current director of the Peace Corps. “Volunteers like Janet Hanneman McNulty ventured into the unknown; and their passion and drive continues to be an inspiration to us all. Decades later, we see the transformational impact of working side by side, across difference, in a spirit of true partnership. A lot has changed since then, but the core principles that the Peace Corps was founded on have not.”

Always a nurse

When Janet’s recruiting efforts took her to St. Mary’s Catholic School in Tampa, Florida, there was a young businessman there on a company trip who crossed her path. “It was late, after midnight,” Jim McNulty said. Janet was setting up for a Peace Corps event the next day, and she immediately put him to work.

“When you stand before three nuns and a beautiful lady, you do whatever they need done,” said Jim McNulty. Not even knowing who she was, he asked her to join him for breakfast the next day. She declined. But she, along with other Peace Corps nurses, did have dinner with him — chicken and yellow rice — before she left town. Now 95, James McNulty still remembers taking Janet to play touch football on the beach: “She caught the ball like a pro!”

Janet and Jim were married in August 1965. At the time, Jim was the youngest-ever vice president of Sears & Roebuck. He credits much of his career success to Janet, who adopted his four children and got her license to practice wherever his job took their family — Illinois, Virginia, California.  

“She was the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” Jim continued. “And she was always a nurse. For her, nursing was the big thing, until the day she died.”

The family ended up in California, where Janet never stopped promoting nursing and education. Like her sister, many people looked up to Janet, then and now. One of her granddaughters now manages a nursing scholarship program in her name. Another granddaughter is in practice with a doctorate in nursing. Kerr said, “I don’t know how many young people she has encouraged to become a nurse, but it’s at least hundreds, in this and other countries.”

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