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Why Suffragists Helped Send Women Doctors to WWI's Front Lines

Why Suffragists Helped Send Women Doctors to WWI's Front Lines

The unlikely band of American women who crossed the Atlantic into war-torn France in February 1918 included six doctors, 13 nurses, a dentist, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter and a mechanic. They were the first wave of women determined to build hospitals to treat the war-wounded and help the Allied effort in World War I. But they had an ulterior motive as well: to prove beyond doubt that women were just as brave, competent and self-sacrificing as men—and thus deserved the right to vote back home.

They did so working shoulder to shoulder alongside men in makeshift hospitals, operating under enemy fire, treating soldiers and war refugees who had been maimed, wounded, gassed or ravaged by influenza.

World War I offered many new opportunities for women—and suffragist groups pushed for even more. At the time, only about six percent of American doctors were female and most could only find positions in hospitals established by and for women. Soon after America entered the war in 1917, four New York-based physicians, Drs. Caroline Finley, Alice Gregory, Mary Lee Edward and Anna Von Sholly, offered their medical services to the U.S. military and were firmly rebuffed because they were women.

But the desperate French welcomed the women—along with whatever funding and supplies they could bring—into the Service de Santé, which oversaw French military medical care.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with some 2 million members nationwide, joined forces with the women doctors. At its December 1917 meeting, NAWSA pledged $175,000 to sponsor an all-female team of physicians, nurses and support personnel to build and staff hospitals in France. They called it the Women's Oversea Hospitals Unit, deliberately leaving "suffrage" out of the title—"for fear it would queer it," according to accounts at the time.

In all, 78 women doctors and their assistants risked their lives under NAWSA's suffragist banner in World War I, but their stories remain largely lost to history. "Practically no information exists about the women doctors and the Women's Oversea Hospitals Unit, outside of the rare mention in an obituary or the self-published pamphlet authored by a NAWSA volunteer," writes Kate Clarke Lemay, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery who chronicled what she could find in her 2019 book, Votes for Women! A Portrait of Persistence.

READ MORE: How Women Fought Their Way Into the Armed Forces

‘Bombs Shook the Operating Room Theater’

The Women's Oversea Hospitals' first unit intended to build a hospital in Guiscard, in northern France, but the Germans had overrun it by the time the women arrived. Twelve of them dispatched instead to Château Ognon, a 17th-century estate-turned-military evacuation hospital outside of Paris.

The French military surgeons who greeted their truck roared with laughter when they saw that their reinforcements were American women.

But the laughter didn't last long. In the first 36 hours, the women treated some 650 cases. "Wounded men started coming in so fast there was no time to think of men people or women people, just human needs," Dr. Olga Povitsky wrote in a 1918 letter excerpted by the Woman Citizen, NAWSA's weekly newspaper. Soon the Americans were in charge of entire wards and operating alongside French surgeons.

Château Ognon, situated along the route German bombers took to attack Paris, was itself bombed in the Germans’ final offensive of the war. Dozens of patients, staffers and soldiers were killed or wounded as the Germans lobbed 3,000 pieces of artillery on the hospital between May 27 and June 16. But the women doctors never flinched. "Bombs shook the operating room theater and the barracks. Cannons roared and planes vibrated the atmosphere," wrote Dr. Edward, who operated on more than 100 casualties in a 24-hour period under enemy fire.

For their bravery, the French government later awarded the Croix de Guerre to Drs. Finley, Edward and Von Sholly and nurse Jane McKee.

READ MORE: Women in World War II Took on These Dangerous Military Jobs

'We Had to Do All Our Own Heavy Work, Including Making Coffins'

Other members of the first suffragist unit were sent build a 50-bed hospital at Labouheyre, in southwestern France, to care for refugees fleeing the German offensive. German POWs framed the barracks, supervised by carpenter Florence Kober, who spoke German. But the women built everything else, from furnishing the hospital with running water and electricity to outfitting it with closets and shelves.

"We had to do all our own heavy work, including making coffins," Dr. Mabel Seagrave, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Seattle, later told a reporter. "Our plumber was a former New York actress. Our carpenter was just out of a fashionable girl’s school. Our chauffeurs were all girls.”

Directed by Dr. Seagrave and Dr. Marie Formad, a surgeon from Newark, N.J., the hospital soon grew to 125 beds and treated more than 10,000 refugees during its existence. The Women's Apparel Association, representing the U.S. fashion industry from factory workers to department-store buyers, provided more than $100,000 for its funding.

READ MORE: Night of Terror: When Suffragists Were Imprisoned and Tortured in 1917

Treating Gas Attack Victims—and Being Gassed

In the summer of 1918, the French asked NAWSA to send 50 more women doctors, nurses and assistants to set up a 300-bed hospital in Nancy for victims of gas attacks, along with a mobile unit that could travel to the frontlines. NAWSA leaders scoured the country for female physicians with appropriate experience, but warned candidates, "This service may be dangerous and will require women of good nerve."

Among those who volunteered were Dr. Marie Lefort, a specialist in skin diseases from Bellevue Hospital Dispensary in New York; Dr. Nellie Barsness, an ophthalmologist from St. Paul, Minnesota and Anna McNamara, a mechanic needed to drive the mobile unit's three-ton truck and run the steam engine needed to heat water for baths and disinfecting clothes. Several of the women suffered gas attacks themselves, including Dr. Irene Morse, a lung specialist from Clinton, Connecticut, who died of the after-effects in 1933.

READ MORE: 9 Groundbreaking Inventions by Women

‘Thank God You’ve Come’

The signing of the armistice in November 1918 didn't end the need for medical care as thousands of repatriates, many of them sick, wounded and starving, traversed the ravaged French countryside. Members of the Women's Oversea Hospitals units stayed on for months in different roles. Dr. Finley's group was deployed to Cambrai, on the German-French border, where 1,500 refugees were returning every day. When she reported to the commanding officer there, he said, "Thank God you've come," Dr. Finley wrote.

Other American women transformed a bombed-out girl's boarding school in Nancy into the Jeanne d'Arc Hospital, where they treated thousands more refugees. "These poor people come in on trains that have sometimes taken days," wrote Dr. Lefort. "They have the hunted expressions one sometimes sees in animals."

Several other women's groups also sent female physicians to Europe in World War I, including the Medical Women's National Association, Smith College and philanthropist Anna Morgan, the daughter of J. P. Morgan.

‘These Women Went Through Hell…and They Became Mostly Footnotes’

WATCH: The 19th Amendment

In all, some 25,000 American women journeyed to France during World War I to support the Allied efforts. More than 100 were decorated by foreign governments, but not one was ever recognized by the U.S. government for her service.

It's unclear how much their hard work and sacrifice helped the American suffragist cause.

After many failed attempts, Congress finally passed the 19th amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, in 1919. It was ratified by the necessary 36 states in 1920.

But aside from brief newspaper accounts, the contributions of the female physicians went largely unrecognized. "These women went through hell just to get the opportunity to serve," says Lemay, "and they became mostly footnotes in history books."

Women on the World War I Home Front

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Minnesota women, like Americans across the nation, were called to contribute to the war effort. Though some went to Europe and served as nurses, drivers, and aid workers on the battlefields, many more participated on the home front. They took on new jobs, conserved vital resources, and joined volunteer organizations. At the same time, they struggled to come to terms with conflicting ideals of patriotism, loyalty, and what it meant to be an American.

Participation on the home front took many forms. Some women worked in offices and factories to replace men who had enlisted. Schools and colleges across Minnesota offered them a variety of vocational programs, including training courses in nursing and clerical jobs. While Minnesota women did not enter factory work at the same rate as women in other parts of the country, they did more agricultural labor. In the summers of 1917 and 1918, women did paid and volunteer work in farm fields statewide. A 1919 vocational study in Minneapolis showed that during the war, over half of the women in the city’s workforce were paid less than the men that they had replaced.

During the war, women also were called on to join the “Army of American Housewives.” They were urged to conserve in nearly every area of household life. Women were encouraged to avoid using delivery services for their shopping to free workers for war service. To avoid inefficiency, fashion magazines and pattern companies advised women to choose patterns that made the best use of fabric and to do without new clothes whenever they could. Women, as well as men, were asked to buy Liberty bonds and donate to the Red Cross. Minnesotans were bombarded with reminders to make do with less, especially when it came to food.

During World War I, food and patriotism were closely linked. Historians argue that, aside from the draft, food conservation had the most significant impact on life on the Minnesota home front. Minnesotans produced as much of their own food as possible and consumed less meat and wheat so that it could be shipped to Europe. The 1917 Minnesota State Fair hosted canning and baking competitions for women and girls. By 1918, a conservation schedule of meatless, wheatless, and porkless meals dictated what was served on tables statewide. Since household cooking and shopping were largely the work of women, their participation was especially vital. The University of Minnesota Extension Service offered women courses in growing vegetable gardens, nutrition, and canning and preserving food.

Since the beginning of the war in 1914, Minnesota women had been active in organizations that fed, housed, and clothed war widows and orphans in Europe. Once the United States entered the war, voluntary organizations became more active. Women joined, led, and donated their time and money to groups that provided soldiers with food, shelter, and supplies. They joined YWCA sewing and knitting circles to craft items for soldiers and civilians. They rolled bandages and collected funds for the Red Cross.

Along with these larger organizations, women in book groups, college clubs, PTAs, and church groups committed to knitting, sewing, nursing, and fundraising. Girls were encouraged to enlist as “Victory Girls” by pledging money saved from allowances and babysitting jobs. Prominent women like University of Minnesota professor Maria Sanford traveled the state giving lectures to raise awareness of war-related activities.

While many relief efforts claimed to represent all Minnesota women, in reality the situation was more complicated. Although many girls and women participated in, and in many cases led, the state’s war relief organizations, participation was not always equal. Upper-class women held nearly all of the leadership positions. Urban women were more likely to contribute their support than women who lived in rural areas.

The work of the Woman’s Committee of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) highlights these divides. The MCPS was created by an act of the Minnesota Legislature in 1917 to protect the public and mobilize the state’s resources for war. Shortly after its formation, the MCPS established a Woman’s Committee headed by Alice Ames Winter. Winter was also named the head of the Minnesota Woman’s Committee within the Council of National Defense. By holding these two prominent leadership roles at the same time, Winter was able to set her own agenda apart from the MCPS.

During 1917, Winter’s organization built a network of women in every county in Minnesota. These county committees led food conservation efforts and Liberty Loan and Red Cross donation drives. They worked to match women with volunteer and vocational training so that they could fill vacant jobs. Winter stressed the importance of the protection of women and children, especially infants, on the home front.

One of the committee’s most central programs was also its most controversial. Winter, along with many other wartime leaders, believed that Americanization was essential to winning the war. They targeted Minnesota’s immigrant communities, including German Americans, Austrian Americans, and Finnish Americans. Stressing that it was a matter of patriotism, the Woman’s Committee and other groups pressured the immigrants to adopt English and abandon their ethnic identities. In turn, many immigrants resisted—particularly those in small towns and rural areas, where the war was unpopular.

Though it appeared to unite them in a common cause, the war divided Minnesotans along social, regional, and ethnic lines. Many groups used scare tactics to try to eliminate perceived disloyalty. Pamphlets and newspaper columns described the “woman slacker” who was a drag on the war effort. These slackers, they claimed, wasted wheat, neglected war work, and criticized the government. Newspapers printed the names of those who didn’t contribute to the Red Cross or Liberty Loan. Members of the American Protective League, led by Charles G. Davis of Minneapolis, made similar accusations against Minnesota women who were suspected of wasting sugar and wheat or neglecting to buy Liberty bonds.

When the war ended in 1918, few of its changes remained permanent for Minnesota women. Most of those who had been hired to replace enlisted men were laid off when the soldiers returned home. Winter and the Woman’s Committee of the MCPS did not retain the power that they had held. However, one notable change for Minnesota women occurred soon after the armistice. Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granted them, and women across the nation, the right to vote.

'Horrendous conditions'

Within months of the outbreak of war she had started a hospital in the north of France and field hospitals were set up close to battlefields across Europe including, in particular, Serbia.

Writer and researcher Louise Miller said the Balkan country was devastated by the war when, as well as being invaded, it was gripped by a typhus epidemic. In total, it lost about 16% of its population.

"Serbs needed any competent help they could get. They didn't care about the form it took: male, female, young, old - anybody," she said.

The first Scottish Women's Hospital field unit was formed in December 1914 in a town called Kragujevac in Serbia.

According to historian Alan Cumming, who has done much to resurrect Elsie's memory, the conditions were "horrendous".

He says the typhus epidemic meant Serbia "was on its knees".

Four of the staff from the Scottish Women's Hospitals had already died and Elsie herself went out to Serbia to set up four typhus hospitals.

By the autumn of 1915, Serbia was invaded by the Austrian army and the "great retreat" began.

Elsie refused to abandon her hospital and she and about 80 women became "effectively prisoners of war", Mr Cumming says.

He says that after a couple of months "the Germans had had enough of them and sent them home".

About 200,000 men, women and children died on the retreat over the mountains of Albania and Montenegro in the depths of winter.

Elsie campaigned for help for Serbia and was upset at how they were treated by the Allies.

"In the latter part of 1916 she headed off again to support her beloved Serbs who had been called to the Russian front," Mr Cumming says.

By this time she knew she had cancer but set up two field hospitals, staffed by about 80 women.

The British government demanded she come home but Elsie refused until the Serbian soldiers were guaranteed safe passage.

The boat brought them back to Newcastle and Elsie, who was crippled with illness, could hardly walk as she greeted Serbian soldiers on deck.

She was so frail she had to be carried off to a nearby hotel where she died on 26 November 1917.

Mr Cumming, an amateur historian who discovered Elsie's story while on a football trip to Serbia a decade ago, says her massive achievements have been "neglected".

When he first found her headstone in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh it was covered in green algae, he says.

A private ceremony will be held at her grave on Sunday to mark the centenary of her death.

As a mark of her growing reputation, a commemoration will also take place at St Giles Cathedral on Wednesday.

Mr Cumming says the contribution Elsie made to Serbia's war effort was "enormous".

He says the country still celebrates her as "the Serbian mother from Scotland".

"In Serbia they have street names, exhibitions, museums and even some new facilities named after, not just Elsie Inglis but a number of the other women who served in the Scottish Women's Hospitals," he says.

For Mr Cumming, there are at least three reasons why Elsie was a remarkable woman.

Firstly, there was her work among the poor - and particularly maternity services for women who could not afford care. Then there was her fearless campaigning for votes for women. Finally, organising the Scottish women who went to the front line in WW1.

"If you are a young women in Scotland today and you are looking for a role model, someone to inspire you, then I suggest you look at the life of Elsie Inglis," he says.

Primary Sources

(1) In her book Unshackled, Christabel Pankhurst explained how she responded to the news in 1914 that Britain and Germany were at war.

War was the only course for our country to take. This was national militancy. As Suffragettes we could not be pacifists at any price. Mother and I declared support of our country. We declared an armistice with the Government and suspended militancy for the duration of the war. We offered our service to the country and called upon all members to do likewise… As Mother said, 'What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!'… Mother seemed for the time to dismiss her ill-health in her ardour for the national cause. She spoke to Servicemen on the war front and to Servicewomen on the home front. She called for wartime military conscription for men, believing that this was democratic and equitable, and that it would enable a more ordered and effective use of the nation's man power.

(2) Sylvia Pankhurst disagreed with the way the WSPU supported the government during the First World War.

When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.

(3) Millicent Fawcett made a speech to NUWSS at the beginning of the war.

Women your country needs you… let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim to it be recognised or not.

(4) Selina Cooper was a member of the Clitheroe Suffrage Society when war was declared in 1914. Selina Cooper, a pacifist, disagreed with the NUWSS leadership on the war, and the Clitheroe Suffrage Society sent a letter to the local newspaper explaining their position.

The impression is given that this and other countries are at war with one another. They are not. Their governments, composed of men and responsible only to the men of each country, and backed by the majority of men who have caught the war and glory fever, have declared war on one another. The women of all these countries have not been consulted as to whether they would have war or not. If men deliberately shut out women, the peace-loving sex, from their rightful share in ruling their countries, then all the appeals and sentiments and prayers will be of no avail in preventing hostilities.

(5) Annie Kenney agreed to support the WSPU policy on the First World War. She explained her views in memories of a militant.

Orders came from Christabel Pankhurst in Paris: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war.

(6) Isabella Ford disagreed with the Nation Union of Women's Suffrage Societies policy of support for the government during the First World War. Isabella Ford believed that women's groups should use all their efforts to obtain a negotiated peace. On 12 March 1915, an article on the subject appeared in the Leeds Weekly Citizen.

Women have more to lose in the horrible business than some men have for they often lose more than life itself when their men are killed since they lose all that makes life worth living for, all that makes for happiness… the destruction of the human race too is felt more bitterly and more deeply by those who through suffering and anguish have brought the human race into the world.

(7) Women's Freedom League refused the call off its campaign for women's suffrage. Charlotte Despard, the leader of the Women's Freedom League was a pacifist who refused to become involved in the war effort. In 1916 she made a speech explaining her views.

The great discovery of the war is that the Government can force upon the capitalistic world the superlative claims of the common cause… The Board of Education has concluded that one in six childhood was so physically and mentally defective as to be unable to derive reasonable benefit from the education, which the State provides… My message to the government is 'take over the milk as you have taken over the munitions'.

(8) Punch Magazine (June 1916)

It is quite impossible to keep pace with all the new incarnations of women in war-time - 'bus-conductress, ticket-collector, lift-girl, club waitress, post-woman, bank clerk, motor-driver, farm-labourer, guide, munition maker. There is nothing new in the function of ministering angel: the myriad nurses in hospital here or abroad are only carrying out, though in greater numbers than ever before, what has always been woman's mission. But whenever he sees one of these new citizens, or hears fresh stories of their address and ability, Mr. Punch is proud and delighted. Perhaps in the past, even in the present, he may have been, or even still is, a little given to chaff Englishwomen for some of their foibles, and even their aspirations. But he never doubted now splendid they were at heart he never for a moment supposed they would be anything but ready and keen when the hour of need struck.

(9) Margaret Bondfield was opposed to the British involvement in the First World War. In March 1917 she faced a hostile crowd at a meeting arranged by Selina Cooper in Nelson.

I know there is not one member of this howling crows that would willingly send their men-folk to an unnecessary death, but that is what you are doing by your attitude… Russia has shown us the way out, and has asked the people of this country to take our stand on the side of democracy and peace… The people who are asking us to save our children today because there is a war on are the people who have doomed us to live under conditions which cause our babies to die.

(10) Hannah Mitchell was one of the suffragettes who disagreed with Emmeline Pankhurst's support of the British government during the First World War. Mitchell explained her views in her book The Hard Way Up.

Some of the women were disappointed with Mrs. Pankhurst's support of the war. Personally, I felt the times were so grave that all human beings must decide for themselves where their duty lay. My own views had crystallised into definite opposition, and I spent my scanty leisure in supporting the anti-war organizations, the ILP, No Conscription Fellowship and the Women's International League.

My son had withstood all the recruiting appeals to the first months, although, like other generous young hearts, I think he was tempted to volunteer… As the time drew near for his call-up I felt I couldn't bear to live if I knew he had killed another woman's son, but it was for him to decide, and I saw he was slowly making up his mind… I was present when he appeared before a Conscientious Objector's Tribunal. He had prepared a written statement setting forth his objections, and his willingness to serve in any capacity, which did not violate his conscience… Although he said little of his experiences during his two and a half years' service, I knew he had suffered in spirit, and felt the tragedy of war very keenly… He was not the happy, carefree lad of pre-war years.

(11) Margaret Bondfield, A Life's Work (1948)

In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued a proclamation asking every woman, who was able and willing to take employment, to register at the Labour Exchange. This ill-considered action threatened to flood the labour market with volunteers willing to take employment on any terms, regardless of the consequences to the normal wage-earner. The Workers' War Emergency Committee held a conference presided over by Mary Macarthur at which a number of resolutions were adopted.

We pointed out that in the interests of the higher patriotism no emergency action should be allowed unnecessary to depress the standard of living of the workers, or the standard of working conditions. We therefore asked: (1) That all women registering for war service should join the appropriate Trade Union and that this be a condition for their employment for war service. (2) That men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.

(12) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

When militants and non-militants alike hastened to offer war service to the Government, no doubt many of them felt, if they thought about it at all, that this was the best way of helping their own cause. Certainly, by their four years' war work, they did prove the fallacy of the anti-suffragist' favourite argument, that women had no right to a voice in questions of peace and war because they took no part in it.

Personally, holding as I do the enfranchisement of women involved greater issues than could be involved in any war, even supposing that the objects of the Great War were those alleged, I cannot help regretting that any justification was given for the popular error which still sometimes ascribes the victory of the suffrage cause, in 1918, to women's war service. This assumption is true only in so far as gratitude to women offered an excuse to the anti-suffragists in the Cabinet and elsewhere to climb down with some dignity from a position that had become untenable before the war. I sometimes think that the art of politics consists in the provision of ladders to enable politicians to climb down from untenable positions.

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s post was submitted by St. Charles History Museum Director Lindsay Judd. All photos are courtesy of the St. Charles History Museum.

Doctors have always played an important role in our society concerning the development and success of communities. St. Charles is no exception concerning its impact by the medical profession.

Through the years, the family physician or pharmacist often played dual roles as healer, civic leader and friend to the community that supported them.

Lambert Hospital

In 1836, Dr. Nathan Collins traveled from the hills of New Hampshire to the small river town of Charleston (St. Charles.) He saw the potential for business in the area and settled in a brick home, with office, on Walnut Street.

For 30 years, Collins served not only as the town doctor and druggist but also worked in construction. After his death in the early 1840s, Drs. Thomas Whipple and Abiel DeWolf became the town physicians.

DeWolf studied at the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati, graduating in 1838 at the age of 21. Although he occasionally traveled throughout the community on horseback, he was famous for his newfangled buggy with “springs” that brought him from Ohio.

The horse-and-buggy doctor’s practice increased, and he traveled throughout both Kane and DuPage counties visiting his patients. DeWolf served the community for nearly half a century both as a druggist and a physician.

Perhaps the most famous of St. Charles’ physicians was Dr. George W. Richards. In 1842, Richards founded the Franklin Medical College, which was located on the corner of First Avenue and Main Street.

Dr. W. G. Calhoun and family in the summer of 1918.

In 1849, Richards and the medical school became notorious. Two students, too poor to continue their medical education at the college, robbed a newlywed bride’s body from her early grave in Sycamore for the purposes of dissection and study.

(This was during a time when cadavers were not available for medical research and education.)

After the bride’s family found the empty grave, a wrathful mob headed for the St. Charles school. Arriving at Dr. Richard’s home, the angry citizens fired shots through the front door of his home which hit both Dr. Richards and one of the medical students.

They killed the student, they wounded Dr. Richards, and the school was closed.

Although the grave-robbing incident affected the future of Dr. Richards — who was forced to relocate — it was not a setback for the practicing physicians of the community.

In 1855, records indicate that Dr. DeWolf was caring for the sickly of St. Charles with an Irish surgeon by the name of Crawford. Dr. Crawford was described in an 1855 St. Charles Directory as “a disciple of the old school of medicine … following no rule but his own judgment.”

Crawford was responsible for developing the Swedish Cholera Hospital that helped prevent the spread of cholera throughout St. Charles in 1852.

The 1850s proved to be a time of growth for the community, as the arrival of several new physicians testifies. Included in this honorable profession were Drs. Tilotson and Goodhue and Dr. Vanderhoof, described as “a promising young student of the eclectic persuasion” from Cold Water, MI.

Settling in an office over the Stewart Bank Building in 1896 was Dr. William Johnson Calhoun. Calhoun, an 1891 graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania Medical College also had completed post graduate course in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Calhoun prospered and became a community leader, influencing the Progressive movements throughout St. Charles.

As history entered a new century, the medical profession in the river town continued to flourish. Perhaps the most significant group of doctors in the community was Dr. R. J. Lambert and his wife, Dr. Edith Bell Lowery.

Lambert, born in Hawaii in 1874, attended school in Salt Lake City, UT. Several years after Lambert and Lowery were married, they opened the first medical convalescence center in St. Charles, in a red brick building set back along Main Street west of the river.

Edith Lowery operated a summer health camp north of St. Charles. Dr. Lambert served the community through the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club, and Dr. Lowery founded the St. Charles Mother’s Club.

One doctor still remembered today by many residents was Dr. Ival G. Langum, and native of Eau Claire, WI. Dr. Langum attended Bennet College of Medicine and graduated from the National University of Medicine in Chicago.

After serving in the Army Medical Corop during World War I, he settled in St. Charles and became the city’s first health officer. Not only was he a compassionate physician, but he served the community for 28 years as mayor of St. Charles.

Throughout the history of St. Charles, many outstanding physicians have provided the medical stability and leadership to the community. Since its early settlement through present day, St. Charles has benefitted from these individuals who served as doctor, pharmacist, mentor, and friend.

This is especially true in 2020 as we battle COVID-19. Thank you to all our healthcare workers, doctors, nurses and everyone on the front line!

About The St. Charles History Museum

The St. Charles History Museum is a 501©3, non-profit organization operating the St. Charles History Museum and historic archive. The museum holds more than 10,000 photographs in its archive and 15,000 artifacts in its collection.

Located in the 1928 McCornack Oil Company building at 215 East Main St., the St. Charles History Museum houses permanent and temporary exhibits, the Colonial Anderson Room, photo and research archives, the Curious Fox Gift Shop, administrative offices, and the storage-preservation repository for the museum’s collections.

World War One: The many battles faced by WW1's nurses

Nursing in World War One was exhausting, often dangerous work and the women who volunteered experienced the horror of war firsthand, some paying the ultimate price. But their story is surrounded by myth and their full contribution often goes unrecognised, writes Shirley Williams.

In his much-admired book published in 1975, The Great War and Modern Memory, the American literary critic and historian, Paul Fussell, wrote about the pervasive myths and legends of WW1, so powerful they became indistinguishable from fact in many minds. Surprisingly, Fussell hardly mentioned nurses. There is no reference to Edith Cavell, let alone Florence Nightingale.

Yet the myth of the gentle young nurse, often a voluntary and untrained VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), in her starched and spotless white uniform, was universally admired. It echoed centuries of stories from King Arthur and the Round Table to Shakespeare's Henry V, where rough but brave warriors encountered graceful young women who cared for them.

My mother, Vera Brittain, author of the moving and candid chronicle of her own wartime experience, Testament of Youth, became part of the myth. In the course of the war she lost all the young men she had loved: her fiance Roland, her brother Edward, her dear friends Victor and Geoffrey.

She threw herself into nursing in some of the most dreadful battlegrounds in an attempt to ease the pain of bereavement. She also dedicated herself to recreating the characters and lives of those she had lost so generations of readers would come to know them and they would live in the memory of many. In a way she succeeded, as this short verse in her first published book of poetry, Verses of a VAD (1920), exemplifies:

Epitaph On My Days in Hospital: I found in you a holy place apart, Sublime endurance, God in man revealed, Where mending broken bodies slowly healed, My broken heart

Her personal experience combined with her talent for writing made compelling prose. Because of a few other women writers who had been wartime nurses as well as herself, the legend of the VAD came to dominate nursing history. But despite their accounts, often what was written was neither wholly accurate nor wholly fair. Acceptance of nurses as equal contributors with doctors on the front line is still to fully arrive.

Young men and women in 1914, like their parents, expected the war to be short. Music hall songs were patriotic and optimistic. Women were expected to wait at home patiently or, if they were from working-class homes, to join munitions factories. "Keep the home fires burning," they were abjured. "Though your boys are far away, they will soon come home." Had they been injured, however, there would have been very few nurses to look after them.

The main trained corps of military nurses was the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). It was founded in 1902 at the time of the Boer war and in 1914 was less than 300 strong. At the end of the war four years later it numbered over 10,000 nurses. In addition several other organisations formed earlier in the century had the nursing of members of the armed services as their main purpose - for instance, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry launched in 1907.

Apart from them there were thousands of untrained women working as midwives or nurses in civilian life, but they had little or no experience of working with soldier patients and their status in society was little better than that of domestic servants.

Because the British Army was so resolutely opposed to all female military nurses except the QAIMNS, early volunteers from Britain were obliged to serve instead with the French and Belgian forces. Many of these early volunteers were from aristocratic families and their servants. Powerful women who ran large families and large estates were well versed in management and saw no great problems in managing a military hospital instead. Their confidence in their own abilities was impressive.

The most famous of these women was the Duchess of Sutherland, nicknamed Meddlesome Millie. Soon after war was declared she and other grand ladies like her took doctors and nurses to France and Belgium, organising their own transport and equipment to set up hospitals and casualty clearing stations.

Whatever bureaucratic obstacles were put in their way, the huge and bloody tide of casualties by the spring of 1915 simply swept them away. Even the British Army's top brass yielded to the combined pressures of need and confident commitment.

At this stage of the war women began to be invited to serve in a range of capacities, of which nursing was one. Thousands of young women from middle-class homes with little experience of domestic work, not much relevant education and total ignorance of male bodies, volunteered and found themselves pitched into military hospitals.

They were not, in most cases, warmly welcomed. Professional nurses, battling for some kind of recognition and for proper training, feared this large invasion of unqualified volunteers would undermine their efforts. Poorly paid VADs were used mainly as domestic labour, cleaning floors, changing bed linen, swilling out bedpans, but were rarely allowed until later in the war to change dressings or administer drugs.

The image and the conspicuous Red Cross uniforms were romantic but the work itself exhausting, unending and sometimes disgusting. Relations between professional nurses and the volunteer assistants were constrained by rigid and unbending discipline. Contracts for VADs could be withdrawn even for slight breaches of the rules.

The climate of hospital life was harsh but many VADs, including my mother, also had to cope with strained relations with their parents and other older relatives. The home front in WW1 was very remote from the fronts where the battles were fought.

There was no television or radio and newspaper reports were much delayed. People learned fragments through long casualty lists or letters from their soldier relatives.

In a letter from her father in the spring of 1918, my mother, at the time looking after soldiers who had been gassed in an understaffed hospital within shelling distance of the German front line, was summoned home. It was "her duty", he wrote, to help her parents cope with the difficulty of running their comfortable home.

The war produced medical issues largely unknown in civilian life and not previously experienced by doctors or nurses. Most common were wound infections, contracted when men riddled by machine gun bullets had bits of uniform and the polluted mud of the trenches driven into their abdomens and internal organs. There were no antibiotics, of course, and disinfectants were crude and insufficiently supplied.

According to Christine Hallett in her comprehensive and minutely researched book on nursing in WW1, Veiled Warriors, more radical measures were widely used on the Russian front. Wounds were packed with iodide or salt, the body tightly bandaged and the victim shipped for many miles to wartime hospitals.

In Britain much work was done to deal with infected wounds but thousands died of tetanus or gangrene before any effective antidote was discovered. Towards the end of the war, a few radical solutions emerged. One of these was blood transfusion effected simply by linking up a tube between the patient and the donor, a direct transference. A version can be seen at the excellent WW1 exhibition of the Florence Nightingale Museum in the hospital where she herself nursed, St Thomas's in London.

When the war ended, most VADs left the service though a few of the most adventurous went away to other wars. They went home to a world in which men were scarce. It was as much the huge loss of hundreds of thousands of young men in France, Belgium and Great Britain, not to speak of Russia and of course Germany, that advanced the cause of equality and the extension of the suffrage to women.

Lacking men, especially in clerical and commercial fields, employers appointed women and they in turn looked for paid employment and a living wage. But the professions were reluctant to change. Professional nurses, the backbone of the wartime service, failed to get legal recognition of registered status until 1943. Some drifted into public health and midwifery but nursing remained something of a Cinderella service.

Much has improved in the last 60 years, but full acceptance of the knowledge and experience of nurses as equal contributors with doctors to the wellbeing of patients is still a work in progress. Being a largely female profession remains an unjust handicap.

Woman and her Sphere

I wrote the following article back in 2006 and it was published in that July’s issue of Ancestors, a magazine published by The National Archives but now, alas, defunct.

The Work of Women Doctors in First World War

On 15 September 1914, six weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Louisa Garrett Anderson, daughter of Britain’s first woman doctor, wrote to her mother, ‘This is just what you would have done at my age. I hope I shall be able to do it half as well as you would have done’. Louisa was writing in the train on her way to Paris where, with her companion, Dr Flora Murray, she proposed to set up a hospital to treat the war wounded.

Louisa Garrett Anderson (r) and Flora Murray – plus dog. (Phot0 courtesy of BBC website)

Neither woman had any previous experience of tending male patients. Louisa was a surgeon in the New Hospital for Women, founded by her mother, and Flora was physician to the Women’s Hospital for Children that she and Louisa had established in London, in the Harrow Road. Although it was now nearly 40 years since British women had become eligible to study and practise medicine, they were still barred from posts in most general hospitals. Their work was confined to general practice and to the hospitals that had been founded by women to treat women and children. The war, however, created new conditions and by its close around one-fifth of Britain’s women doctors had undertaken medical war work, both at home and, more particularly, abroad.

This experience was not at first gained through the conventional conduit of the Royal Army Medical Corps or through the joint committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John that had been formed to co-ordinate voluntary medical work. The War Office, believing it had sufficient reserves of male medical personnel, refused to employ women doctors in war zones. However in the chaos of war the relief of suffering was open to any groups – even groups of women – able to raise the necessary funds and staff.

In autumn 1914 British agencies, such as the Serbian Relief Fund, the Society of Friends, the Wounded Allies Relief Committee and the British Farmers, quickly organized medical teams for service overseas. Many of these, such as the Berry Mission and the Almeric Paget Massage Corps, were happy to include women doctors. Of other ‘free enterprises’ the Women’s Imperial Service League, the Women’s Hospital Corps, and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals employed only women doctors.

Mrs Stobart (centre) with her group in Antwerp. Sept 1914. Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum Collection

The Women’s Imperial Service League was formed by Mrs Mabel St Clair Stobart in August 1914. Unlike most women of her day Mrs Stobart already had experience of organizing a medical mission to a war zone. In 1912 she had founded the Women’s Convoy Corps, taking it to Bulgaria during the first Balkan war. Mrs Stobart’s team had comprised three women doctors, ‘for the purpose of fully demonstrating my argument that women are capable of undertaking all work in connection with the sick and wounded in warfare.’ Similarly, at the invitation of the Belgian Croix Rouge, on 22 September 1914 she took the Women’s Imperial Service League unit to Antwerp.

Florence Stoney, wearing the decorations she received for her service during the First World War

The doctor-in-charge was Dr Florence Stoney, who before the war had set up the x-ray department at the Royal Free and the New Hospital for Women and who brought with her the very latest in x-ray equipment. Accompanying her were five other women, Drs Joan Watts, Helen Hanson, Mabel Ramsay (for her account of the expedition click here) , Rose Turner and Emily Morris. As the Germans overran Belgium the women were quickly forced to evacuate.

In April 1915, after working for a time in France, the Stobart Unit set out for Serbia, under the auspices of the Serbian Relief Fund. That country had lost many of its own doctors and was grateful for the assistance of the Unit, which by now comprised 15 women doctors. The Unit dealt with those wounded in battle but also played an important part in treating the neglected civilian population. Typhus was a major threat to the health of both soldiers and civilians and the Unit set up roadside dispensaries so that patients could be treated before they entered towns and spread infection further. This work came to an end when Bulgaria invaded Serbia in October 1915 and the Unit was forced to retreat.

George James Rankin, Mrs M. A St Clair Stobart (Lady of the Black Horse. (c) British Red Cross Museum and Archives Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Mrs Stobart, a feminist but fiercely independent, had not been directly involved in the pre-war suffrage campaign, unlike many of her doctors. Drs Helen Hanson and Dorothy Tudor, who went out to Bulgaria with her in 1912, were members of the Women’s Freedom League and Dr Mabel Ramsay had been secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage society in Plymouth. Indeed women doctors, as a class, had been very much involved in the suffrage movement, the greater number being associated with the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Most women could not afford to jeopardize their livelihood and professional standing by serving a prison term.

As tax payers many doctors were members of the Tax Resistance League, prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience that did not result in imprisonment. Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray were relatively unusual in being supporters of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. Indeed in 1912 Louisa Garrett Anderson had joined the hunger strike when imprisoned in Holloway after taking part in a WSPU window-smashing raid. However on the outbreak of war the suffrage campaign was suspended and within eight days women doctors, both suffragettes and suffragists, were planning how best to give practical support to the war effort.

Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray wasted no energy in approaching the War Office. Instead, on 12 August, they called in person at the French Embassy, offering to raise and equip a surgical unit, comprising women doctors and trained nurses, for service in France. Within a week the French Red Cross had accepted this offer. The newly-formed Women’s Hospital Corps quickly raised £2000 and on 17 September 1914 Louisa Garrett Anderson was in Paris, writing that ‘we found Claridge’s Hotel [in which their hospital was to be housed] a gorgeous shell of marble and gilt without heating or crockery or anything practical but by dint of mild ‘militancy’ & unending push things have advanced immensely.’

Working alongside Anderson and Murray were Drs Gertrude Gazdar, Hazel Cuthbert and Grace Judge. On 27 September Louisa wrote to her mother: ‘The cases that come to us are very septic and the wounds are terrible. .. We have fitted up quite a satisfactory small operating theatre in the ‘Ladies Lavatory’ which has tiled floor and walls, good water supply & heating. I bought a simple operating table in Paris and we have arranged gas ring and fish kettles for sterilization…After years of unpopularity over the suffrage it is very exhilarating to be on top of the wave, helped and approved by everyone, except perhaps the English War Office, while all the time we are doing suffrage work – or woman’s work – in another form…I wish the whole organization for the care of the wounded…could be put into the hands of women. This is not military work. It is merely a matter of organisation, common sense, attention to detail and a determination to avoid unnecessary suffering and loss of life.’

In March 1915, after running a second hospital at Wimeueux, close to heavy fighting, the Women’s Hospital Corps received the accolade from the War Office of being put in charge of a new military hospital in London, housed in the former St Giles Workhouse in Endell Street, Covent Garden.

Endell Street Military Hospital, 1919. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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The hospital staff comprised women only and included 15 doctors, surgeons, ophthalmic surgeons, dental surgeons, an anaesthetist, bacteriological and pathological experts and seven assistant doctors and surgeons, together with a full staff of women assistants. Members of the executive staff were ‘attached’ to the Royal Army Medical Corps, holding equal rank and receiving equal pay with Army doctors, but were not commissioned and did not wear army uniform. Flora Murray’s rank was equivalent to that of a lieutenant-colonel and Louisa Garrett Anderson’s that of a major. For a ‘Woman’s Hour’ podcast about the Endell Street Hospital click here.

The hospital proved particularly successful in gaining the loyalty of its patients. One, Private Crouch, wrote in 1915 to his father in Australia: ‘The management is good, and the surgeons take great interest in and pains with their patients. They will persevere for months with a shattered limb, before amputation, to try to save it…The whole hospital is a triumph for women, and incidentally it is a triumph for suffragettes’. The Endell Street hospital was retained in service until October 1919, longer than many other temporary military hospitals, and in its time treated over 24,000 soldiers as in-patients and nearly the same number of out-patients.

Plaque commemorating the Endell Street Military Hospital (photo courtesy of Plaques of London website)

Louisa Garrett Anderson who, like all the other women surgeons, had had no previous experience of trauma surgery, was particularly interested in the treatment of gunshot wounds. She backed the BIPP treatment (bismuth and iodoform paraffin paste), publishing articles on the subject in the Lancet. Both Murray and Anderson were, in 1917, among the first to be appointed CBE.

On the very day in August 1914 that Anderson and Murray were offering their assistance at the French Embassy, Elsie Inglis, a Scottish surgeon, proposed to a meeting in Edinburgh of the Scottish Federation of the NUWSS, of which she was secretary, that help should be given to the Red Cross. Matters swiftly progressed until Inglis was able to offer a unit of 100 beds to either the War Office or the Red Cross. After receiving a sharp rebuff, she, too, approached the French Ambassador with an offer to send hospital units to France. A similar proposition was also made to the Serbian authorities.

By 19 November 1914 the first Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit For Foreign Service was in Calais, dealing with an outbreak of typhoid. The doctor in charge was Alice Hutchinson, who in 1912 had been a member of Mrs Stobart’s Women’s Convoy Corps. In fact it was for service in Serbia that this unit had been recruited and, after dealing with the Calais emergency, by spring 1915 it was able to set up a 40-tent hospital at Valjevo, 80 miles from Belgrade.

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Collecting box 1914-1918. Image courtesy of National MuseumsScotland. http://www.nms.ac.uk

On 2 December 1914 the SWH’s first French unit (that is, the first intended for France) left Waverley Station, bound for Royaumont, where it was to be housed in a 13 th -century Abbey.

Norah Neilson-Gray. The Scottish Women’s Hospital : In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr. Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient. Picture courtesy Imperial War Museum Women’s Work Section

The unit comprised seven doctors, under the charge of Dr Frances Ivens. It was one of the hospitals closest to the front line and at its peak was, with 600 beds, the largest British voluntary hospital in France. On 25 September 1915 Miss M. Starr, a VAD at Royaumont, wrote of a casualty that had just arrived, ’One arm will simply have to be amputated, he had had poison gas, as well, and the smell was enough to knock one down, bits of bone sticking out and all gangrene. It will be marvellous if Miss Ivens saves it, but she is going to try it appears, as it is his right arm. He went to X-ray, then to Theatre, and I believe the operation was rather wonderful, but I had no time to stop and see’. Four days later she wrote, ‘The operating theatre is a horrible hell these days, it goes on till 2 and 3 in the morning. Then there is another fitted up temporarily on one of the Ward kitchens’.

In mid-1917 Royaumont opened a satellite camp hospital even closer to the line, at Villers Cotterets. From there in May 1918 Dr Elizabeth Courtauld wrote, ‘Terrible cases came in. Between 10.30 and 3.30 or 4 am we had to amputate six thighs and one leg, mostly by the light of bits of candle, held by the orderlies, and as for me giving the anaesthetic, I did it more or less in the dark at my end of the patient’.

Between January 1915 and February 1919 the surgeons at Royaumont and Villers Cotterets performed 7204 operations. The hospital had an excellent x-ray unit, necessary for locating bullets and shrapnel before surgery, and placed great importance on bacteriological examinations. To prevent death from gas gangrene the doctors followed the procedure developed in 1915 of extensive excision of the wound, which was then kept open, with an appropriate dressing, for later suture.

In May 1915 a second Scottish Women’s hospital was established by the ‘Girton and Newnham’ Unit, in tents, near Troyes. Its doctors included Laura Sandeman, Louise McIlroy and Isabel Emslie.

In November 1915 the unit was moved from France to Salonika, attached to the French Expeditionary Force. By April 1915 Elsie Inglis was in Serbia, in charge of another unit, the ‘London’. She worked there and in Russia until the autumn of 1917 when, with her unit, she returned, mortally ill, dying the day after arriving at Newcastle.

In Serbia the necessity was less for war surgery than for combating disease. Dysentery, typhus and malaria were rife. The SWH laboratory attached to the Girton and Newnham Unit was the best equipped in Serbia and its pathologists were kept busy. In it Isabel Emslie carried out cerebro-spinal fluid examinations for the consultant physician to the British Army, writing later, ‘I was proud and most willing to help by giving this voluntary contribution to the British, who had not thought fit to accept our SWHs.’

Girton and Newnham Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals about to embark on board ship at Liverpool, October 1915. Photo courtesy of Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow Archive

In the summer of 1916 another SWH unit, named the ‘American Unit’ because it was financed by money raised in the USA, was sent to Ostrovo, 85 miles from Salonika. It was to remain in Serbia until mid-1919. Isabel Emslie became its chief medical officer in 1918.

Dr Isabel Emslie. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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She later wrote, ‘I did the operating and was ably assisted by the keen young doctors, latterly arrived from home, who were able to brief me on the latest methods, for it was now four years since I had been home. I undertook major operations which I never imagined would have fallen to my lot, and I would never have had the temerity to tackle all the specialist operations if there had been anyone else capable of doing them. Looking back on a long life of medical work and service, I believe that my sojourn in Vranja was the most worth-while period of my war experience and possibly of my life’. The work of the SWH in Serbia only ended in March 1920, by which time over 60 British women doctors, some of whom were working independently of the SWH, had served in the country.

By 1916 the War Office, recognizing that the supply of male doctors was dwindling, reversed its policy and sent a contingent of 85 medical women to Malta. Others followed and, for the remainder of the war, were to be found working in Egypt, Salonika and the Sinai Desert. These women were attached to the RAMC, receiving 24s a day, the pay of a male temporary officer. However they did not have equal rights, were forced to pay for their own board and were not permitted to wear uniform.

In Britain, again in response to the shortage of male doctors, a few women were appointed to posts in military hospitals. For instance Dr Helena Wright was a surgeon at Bethnal Green Military Hospital and Dr Florence Stoney, following her work with Mrs Stobart’s Unit, was appointed to the x-ray department of the Fulham Military Hospital. In addition, as the war dragged on, new posts became available to women doctors in connection with the new women’s services, the WAAC, the WRNS, and the WRAF.

During the war the necessity of providing the country with doctors forced the medical profession to allow women access to schools previously the preserve of men. The London School of Medicine for Women also played its part, expanding rapidly until, by 1919, it was the largest medical school in the country.

In How to Become a Woman Doctor, published in 1918, the author optimistically wrote that ‘War-time appointments at large hospitals have given great satisfaction and done much to break down old conservative ideas’. However, with the return to peace, the forces of reaction regrouped. The Royal Free once again became the only London teaching hospital offering clinical instruction to women. Women doctors, even those who had gained extensive experience in all aspects of medicine during the previous four years, were relegated to the type of position that they had held before the war. Although doctors such as Louise McIlroy, Frances Ivens and Isabel Elmslie had distinguished post-war careers, these were not based on the practical experience they had gained during the war.

The war-work of women doctors was quickly forgotten. It is only in the last decade or so that detailed research on the subject has been published. This has been facilitated by war diaries and collections of letters donated to archives either by the women medical workers themselves or by their descendants. If you believe that you have in your possession any such material, do consider depositing it at one of the archives listed below.

Taking it further

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ holds books, papers and photographs relating to the work of medical women in the First World War.

The Liddle Collection, Leeds University Library, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT – is a specialist collection of primary material relating to the First World War, including papers of women doctors.

The Wellcome Library, 210 Euston Road, London NW! 2BE holds the archive of the Medical Women’s Federation, which includes some material relating to the work of women doctors in the First World War.

The Women’s [email protected] LSE – holds papers relating to Louisa Garrett Anderson, Flora Murray and the Women’s Hospital Corps

Mitchell Library, 201 North Street, Glasgow holds the main archive of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Further Reading

Eileen Crofton, The Women of Royaumont: a Scottish women’s hospital on the Western Front (Tuckwell Press, 1997)

Monica Krippner, The Quality of Mercy: women at war, Serbia 1915-18 (David & Charles, 1980)

Leah Leneman, In the Service of Life: the story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (Mercat Press, 1994)

Flora Murray, Women as Army Surgeons (Hodder & Stoughton, 1920)

Not Waiting for the Call: American Women Physicians and World War I

The modern weapons and tactics of World War I produced unprecedented conflict and carnage in Europe. France suffered the devastating effects of the war being fought on its soil, including a severe humanitarian crisis resulting from the bombardment of villages near the constantly-moving front lines. With the local village doctors away fighting at the front, the rural civilian population--already ailing from malnutrition and disease--were left even more vulnerable to illness and epidemics. Despite the widespread suffering, women physicians were not permitted by the European Allied countries, and later, the United States, to serve as officers in the military medical corps. By 1917 when the U.S. entered the conflict, there was a shortage of workers for all types of jobs related to the war effort, including physicians – domestically and overseas. The need for the nation to mobilize for the war effort, and the growing professionalization of women accelerated the conversation about the role and status of women in the United States, where most were still denied the right to vote. Women doctors eagerly participated in this conversation, as many viewed it as their patriotic duty to use their medical skills during the war, to care for both civilians and soldiers. With so many male doctors called away to combat, it seemed obvious to women physicians like Dr. Frances Van Gasken, Professor of Clinical Medicine at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, that the United States government would call upon them to fill the need for medical personnel. Dr. Van Gasken, who was known for wearing a “Votes for Women” button while teaching at Woman’s Med, addressed the incoming class in September 1917: “Who is there to fill these places but women? Is it not your day? Does opportunity not call to you?… It seems to me there is no better ‘war bit’ for women to do than. to enroll themselves as students of medicine…”

When the General Medical Board of the Council of National Defense appointed Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton, who had studied the wartime Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Europe, to form a committee of women physicians, it seemed inevitable that Uncle Sam would soon call upon the Daughters of Aesculapius* to join their brothers in patriotic service. At their 1918 annual meeting, two years after endorsing suffrage, the Alumnae of Woman’s Med passed a resolution:

That the Alumnae Association of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania put itself upon record as asking that women physicians be eligible for admission to the Medical Reserve Corps and, when so admitted, that they receive the rank and pay given to men for equivalent work.[emphasis added]

In April 1917 the U.S. entered the war in March 1918 the Army Medical Department began allowing women physicians to enlist as contract surgeons —a doctor-for-hire arrangement that provided more doctors, but denied women the military commission offered to their male counterparts. This meant less pay and no commission, and only eleven of the fifty-five women contract surgeons who enlisted were sent “over there” to serve on the front lines. Many women doctors considered this an insult—especially since women nurses had been part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps since 1901 and 1908, respectively, and were already deployed overseas. They could see no real reasons why qualified and necessary doctors would be kept out of the military—other than because they were women. Woman’ Med alumna Dr. Caroline M. Purnell, wrote: “. I do not believe for one minute that the law keeps us from the medical reserve corps. The only reason given is that which is no reason—that we are not permitted to be in the corps because we never have been. It is just like voting the vote is denied because women didn’t used to vote.”

So women physicians took matters into their own hands, forming voluntary organizations and travelling independently to war-torn areas of France to provide sorely needed medical care for the population, alongside other philanthropic organizations like the International Red Cross. Woman’s Med alums who traveled to war zones in Europe included Purnell (WMC 1887), Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton (WMC 1897), Dr. Mary E. Lapham (WMC 1900), and Dr. Lillian Stephenson (WMC 1909). Medical women’s groups serving overseas included the American Women’s Hospitals, formed expressly for this purpose a unit from the Smith College the Overseas Hospitals of the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the Hospital Unit of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The latter group served under the French flag, with French Commissions, after its services were officially rejected by the U. S. Surgeon General, Dr. William C. Gorgas. (Despite women doctors demonstrating their patriotic loyalty and service, the ultimate goal of securing military commission with rank and pay equal to male doctors remained out of reach. It wasn’t until WWII that Dr. Margaret Craighill, then Dean of WMC, became the first woman commissioned in the United States Army Medical Corps. )

The desire to advance women in the medical profession and to relieve those suffering in wartime conditions prompted American women physicians to establish the first American Women’s Hospital (AWH) in France in 1918. When they arrived in France, the doctors of the AWH found a ravaged countryside and impoverished villagers ailing from longstanding health problems exacerbated by the war. They established their first hospital in July 1918 in Neufmoutiers, a small village about twenty miles southeast of Paris. In September, the hospital was moved to Luzancy, closer to the devastated areas and where the doctors handled dysentery, typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia as well as performing long-overdue surgeries. The doctors of AWH did their medical work under extremely difficult circumstances: scarcity of equipment, improvised spaces, poor transportation, and constant uncertainty and insecurity because the front line of battle was always moving back and forth throughout the countryside. The women physicians were welcomed and appreciated by local villagers, and purposefully cultivated good relations with local French officials, who at times felt threatened by the women’s presence. Dr. Louise Hurell, director of the AWH Hospital stated that “ . I made my decision and called upon these [French] doctors before they called upon us. a week ago one of those French doctors. had asked. how long those American women were to take the bread out of the French doctors’ mouths. [But] Our mayor told us in emphatic terms that he, the prefect and the people throughout the country knew that if we had not come here when we did the people of this community would be dead and buried…”

Following the armistice of November 11, 1918, local French doctors returned to Luzancy, its surrounding areas and living conditions improved greatly, and the AWH moved their hospital in June of 1919 to Blérancourt, a town about 75 miles north. At Blérancourt, the doctors attended to preventive health care, particularly vaccinations for smallpox and typhoid. This region was just on the edge of the Battle of the Marne, an area that saw a large number of refugees. Director of the AWH hospitals Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's reports describe illness and epidemics compounded by lack of food, fuel and clothing, as well as unsanitary conditions. The pride of the hospitals was its ambulance drivers and surgeons—all women—who served 20,000 patients over the course of a year. The French government honored Dr. Hurrell and other AWH physicians with the Medailles de Reconnaissance, awarded in recognition of those who, without military obligation, had come to the aid of the injured, disabled, and refugees, or who had performed an act of exceptional dedication in the presence of the enemy during the First World War.

The armistice that ended the conflict in Western Europe did nothing to alleviate conditions in the areas that had been devastated by battle. Accordingly, the doctors of AWH believed that the end of war did not mean the end of their services. People who had experienced the deprivations and destruction of war continued to suffer from its effects long after the fighting had ended: local violence, hunger, injuries, communicable diseases, forced migration, and inadequate housing. Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy, the chair of AWH, stated that the aftermath of war was in fact “worse than the War in some countries.” As towns and villages were restored with a healthy population, the AWH moved on to assist other needy areas, including Eastern European regions affected by the refugee crises resulting from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Canadian Women and War

Canada has been involved in various wars from the beginning of its colonial history. Just as the nature of these wars has changed over time, so, too, has their effect on Canadian women. Women have actively participated in war, from nursing and munitions manufacturing during the First and Second World Wars to the increasing involvement of Canadian women in the military.

Signallers Marian Wingate and Margaret Little of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service at work in St. John's, Newfoundland, April 1945.

War has impacted Canadian women’s lives in different ways, depending on their geographical location and racial and economic status. Pre-20th-century conflicts had a great impact on women in Canada, especially Indigenous women, whose communities could be dispossessed and devastated by colonial militaries. Women were interned in Canada during wartime — that is, detained and confined — because their background could be traced to enemy states.

Relocation of Japanese Canadians to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942. Community kitchen at a Japanese Canadian internment camp in Greenwood BC, 1943.

While some women have been traumatized profoundly by Canada’s wars, others have indirectly benefited from them. Women have often assumed traditionally male work during wartime — a pattern that has, in some cases, contributed to the advancement of women’s rights .

New France and British North America

Women who accompanied the French and English military forces of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries cooked, laundered, sewed, and tended to the sick and wounded. Some protected their property from marauders and prepared ammunition, food and medicines.

Madame La Tour bravely defends the fort against d'Aulnay 's assault (drawing by C. W. Jefferys, courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

In mid-17th-century Acadia, the wife of Charles de Saint-Étienne, Françoise-Marie Jacquelin (better known as Madame de La Tour), took command of her husband’s colonial army corps in his absence and defended Fort La Tour against a rival militia (see Civil War in Acadia). Similarly, in 1692, the 14-year-old Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Verchères played a decisive role in defending Fort Verchères from Haudenosaunee raiders. During the War of 1812, Laura Secord famously walked more than 30 km to warn the British military of an impending attack.

During the 1885 North-West Resistance, women were admitted officially to the military for the first time, as nurses (see Nursing Sisters). Civilian nurses also accompanied the Yukon Field Force during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, as well as the Canadian contingent in the South African War (1899–1902).

Miss Minnie Affleck, nursing sister with the 1st Canadian Contingent, South African War, 1899-1902

Expansion of Women’s Wartime Roles in the 20th Century

Into the 20th century, factors like the distance of conflicts and restrictive ideas about women’s abilities combined to prevent direct participation by women as combatants. Nonetheless, during both the First and Second World Wars, women organized for home defence, outfitting themselves in uniforms, and training in rifle shooting and military drills.

At a casualty clearing station, wounded Canadians present a nurse with a dog brought out of the trenches with them, October 1916 Nursing sisters of Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service talking with wounded soldiers, Beny-sur-Mer, France, June 16, 1944 Nursing sisters dispensing medical supplies at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital, St. John's, Newfoundland, ca. 1942

The first two women’s services were created as auxiliaries to the air force and the army in 1941. Some 50,000 Canadian women eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy. While the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division members were initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles, they eventually came to work as parachute riggers, laboratory assistants, and within the electrical and mechanical trades.

Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) Pipe and Brass bands preparing to take part in a march past in Apeld oorn, Netherlands, August 13, 1945, at the end of the Second World War Lance-Corporal A.W. Hartung with Pipers Flossie Rose (centre) and Mona Michie of the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) Pipe Band, Zeist, Netherlands, August 25, 1945 Signallers Marian Wingate and Margaret Little of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service at work in St. John 's, Newfoundland, April 1945.

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps followed the same path, with its members starting out as cooks, nurses and seamstresses, but later becoming drivers and mechanics. The third women’s military corps, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or “Wrens” informally), was established in 1942. Growing wartime bureaucracy opened the way for women as officially recognized members of the armed forces outside of nursing, and many women in the service gained employment in clerical positions as stenographers, switchboard operators and secretaries.


In 1917, amidst the tremendous reconfiguration of labour practices on the home front, the movement for women’s suffrage won a major victory with the passage of the Wartime Elections Act, which granted some women the right to vote in federal elections. Suffrage at this time was limited to women working in the armed forces and the wives, mothers and sisters of soldiers overseas. At the same time, however, the Act revoked voting rights from Canadian citizens of enemy-alien birth who were naturalized after 1902. Today, most historians view the Act partly as the product of women’s growing presence in the public sphere and partly as a move by Prime Minister Robert Borden to bolster electoral support for his government (see Election of 1917).

Wartime Roles on the Home Front

Another important role for women during wartime, especially the Second World War, consisted of code breaking and espionage. The Canadian government recruited members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, among others, to break coded messages. They worked in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario, including at Camp X.

Veronica Foster, known as "The Bren Gun Girl," poses with a finished Bren gun at the John Inglis & Co. plant, May 1941. The operator, Clémence Gagnon, watches a machine carding asbestos fibre, Johns Manville factory, Asbestos, Quebec, June 1944.

Female shipyard workers walking down a path returning to work after a 30-minute lunch break in the shipyard cafeteria, May 1943.

While a few women had produced ammunition in factories during the South African War, during the First and Second World Wars they entered the munitions industry en masse. According to the Imperial Munitions Board, about 35,000 women worked in munitions factories in Ontario and Quebec during the First World War. In 1943, approximately 261,000 women were involved in the production of war goods, accounting for more than 30 per cent of the aircraft industry, close to 50 per cent of the employees in many gun plants, and a distinct majority in munitions inspection.

Women also worked to ensure a thriving domestic economy. During the First and Second World Wars, they produced and conserved food raised funds to finance hospitals, ambulances, hostels and aircraft and volunteered their services inside and outside the country. Many women also joined such public service organizations as the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Whatever the conventional role for women in the social order, war required the full scope of Canada’s human resources. At the same time, the temporary nature of women’s contributions during the First and Second World Wars ensured that their wartime efforts did not challenge the established system and that they reverted to conventional female roles after hostilities ended. In war, women’s labour was essential, but in peace it was expendable.

Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

Despite women’s contributions to Canada’s military efforts in the 20th century, they were not allowed full entry into the armed forces until the late 1980s. Canada only opened all military positions to women in 1989 (except for submarines, which admitted women in 2001). By 2001, women made up 11.4 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

CAF recruitment and retention of men and women slowed during the early- to mid-2010s — and full- and part-time membership fell short of targets. The recruitment of women stagnated, and women left their positions at a slightly higher rate than men. In response, the CAF established a recruitment and retention strategy that sought to increase the number of female personnel by one per cent annually, with a goal of reaching 25 per cent representation by 2026.

By February 2018, 15.3 per cent of CAF personnel, 4.3 per cent of combat personnel and 17.9 per cent of all CAF officers were women. Of the 14,434 women serving, 7,408 were in the Army, 2,856 in the Royal Canadian Navy and 4,160 in the Royal Canadian Air Force. A year later, 4.8 per cent of combat personnel in the regular force and primary reserve were women. By February 2020, women made up 16 per cent of CAF personnel: 19.1 per cent of officers and 15.1 per cent of non-commissioned members. The percentage of women was highest in the navy (20.6 per cent), followed closely by the air force (19.8 per cent). Women comprised 13.5 per cent of the Canadian army in 2020.

Sexual Misconduct in the CAF

Though the Canadian military actively recruits women, it has struggled for some time with a culture of misogyny and sexual violence. A 2014 investigation by Maclean’s magazine found that, from 2000, military police received an average of 178 complaints of sexual assault per year, which experts believed represented a fraction of the total number of sexual assaults. From 1999 to 2013, the average number of soldiers court-martialled for sexual assault each year was 8, with an average of 2.5 soldiers found guilty per year (see Military Justice System).

An external review of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the military was conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps from July to December 2014. Published on 27 March 2015, the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces found that “there is an undeniable problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the CAF, which requires direct and sustained action.” The report made 10 recommendations to help address the issue, including: acknowledging the problem establishing and implementing a strategy to “effect cultural change” and, forming an independent centre to handle claims of sexual abuse and misconduct.

In response, the CAF agreed to the recommendations and established Operation HONOUR, an operational approach to the elimination of harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour, in August 2015. As well, Canada’s chief of defence staff, General Jonathan Vance, issued an order to all CAF personnel prohibiting behaviours that “perpetuate stereotypes and modes of thinking that devalue members on the basis of their sex, sexuality or sexual orientation.”The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, a support centre for CAF members affected by sexual misconduct, was established 15 September 2015. The centre is led by a civilian executive and operates within the Department of National Defence and outside the CAF chain of command.

In November 2016, Statistics Canada released a review of sexual misconduct in the CAF. According to the review, over 25 per cent of women in the regular force claimed to have been victims of sexual assault since joining the CAF. That number reached over 37 per cent among women with 15 or more years of service.

In the wake of the Statistics Canada review and the publication of three Operation HONOUR progress reports, 77 members of the CAF were released from duty in April 2017 and another 29 that November. According to the third Operation HONOUR progress report, military police received 288 reports of potential offences of a sexual nature between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017. Of those, 21 cases were deemed unfounded — meaning police determined that no laws were violated. The unfounded rate accounted for 7.3 per cent of complaints, which was down from nearly 29 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

Of 267 sexual misconduct cases in 2016–17, military police laid 64 charges, which led to 30 court martials with 27 guilty verdicts.

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 900 members of the regular force (1.6 per cent) and 600 members of the primary reserve (2.2 per cent) reported that they were victims of sexual assault in 2018. These numbers were similar to those reported in 2016. Women were far more likely to report being victims of sexual assault. Moreover, more than half of women (and about 40 per cent of men) in the CAF believed that inappropriate sexual behaviour was a problem in the military. However, the 2018 survey also revealed some positive developments. Nearly half (45 per cent) of the regular force and primary reserve felt that Operation HONOUR had been very effective in combatting sexual misconduct in the armed forces. Awareness of the problem had increased, particularly among those who had not been victims themselves.

Women and the Anti-War Movement

Canadian women have impacted warfare as much as warfare has impacted them. Some have significantly affected the character of the Canadian military by climbing its ranks and promoting its activities, while others have joined pacifist and anti-war movements that have sharply criticized the military. Many Canadian women have undertaken leading roles in the struggle against war. This was especially the case during the First World War, when women across Europe and North America organized for peace on an unprecedented scale.

Yet the war also had a very divisive impact on Canadian women. A number of mainstream women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and the National Committee of Women for Patriotic Service (NCWPS), openly or tacitly supported the war. Other women contested the war at its outset but became increasingly convinced of its necessity. Prominent suffrage leaders Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Flora MacDonald Denison, for instance, all held to their longstanding pacifist beliefs when war broke out in 1914, but later changed their position as they became convinced that Germany’s attacks on Britain could only be stopped through military defeat.

In 1915, prominent American reformer Jane Addams organized the Women’s Peace Conference at The Hague. Addams had invited the NCWC and the NCWPS, but both declined. A handful of Canadians did ultimately attend as independent delegates, including Julia Grace Wales and Laura Hughes. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded by women active in the women’s suffrage movement in Europe and North America who attended the conference at The Hague. These women wished to end the First World War and seek ways to ensure that no more wars took place.

In the subsequent century, the alignment of the pacifist movement and nationwide women’s activism was never again quite as strong as it was during the First World War. Nonetheless, Canadian women did play a leading role in the struggle for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s, which gave birth to the Voice of Women (now the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace). In the early years of the 21st century, thousands of women across the country also mobilized to prevent Canada’s involvement in the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.

Women's experience of world war one: Suffragists, pacifists and poets

The period of 1914–1918 was a time of immense change for women in Britain. The Suffragist movement, begun in 1867, gained irresistible force, culminating in the Act of 1918 in which women were given the vote at thirty and men at twenty-one. It was not until the 1928 Act that for the first time in the history of Britain there was full adult suffrage, granting the vote to both sexes at twenty-one. The picture is a complex one Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel identified their movement with the war effort, indeed their pre-war militancy became militarism. Mrs Fawcett, an avowed non-militant suffragist before the war, who believed in the verbal power of argument over revolutionary tactics, also supported the war effort and nationalism. However, there were other suffragists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily Hobhouse, Catherine Marshall, Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner and Kate Courtney, who were opposed to the war. Mrs Pankhurst believed if women couldn't fight, they shouldn't vote. The pacifists believed that this view simply gave in to the argument for physical force. They also saw militarism as yet another version of the strong oppressing the weak and thus an emphatic form of patriarchy. However, although the suffragists were bitterly divided in their moral view of the war, they were united in the cause of women's emancipation.

The war itself provided all classes of women with important opportunities to work outside the home, as munition workers, land-army workers, police-women, doctors and nurses. The experience of change caused by the suffrage movement, together with the effect of the war upon women's lives, transformed women's image of themselves in radical and irreversible ways.

My paper draws on some 125 poems by 72 women poets Scars Upon My Heart is the first anthology of its kind and testifies to women's involvement in the war and the impact it had upon their lives. The anthology is necessary reading, together with the soldier poets like Owen, Sassoon, Blunden and Rosenberg, whose war poetry has been known to us for the past sixty years, for a full understanding of the significance of war for women and men.