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a144 048Women's ward of American Women's Hospitals #1 in Luzancy, France. Dr. M. Louise Hurrell, Dr. Inez C. Bentley, nurses, and patients. 1918.  

They Were There: American Women Physicians and the First World War 

By Mollie C Marr, BFA; Iris Dupanovic, MS; Victoria Z Sefcsik, MS; Nitisha Mehta; Eliza Lo Chin, MD, MPH
via the The Permanente Journal web site


This past decade marked the centenary of World War I (WWI). For the first time in American history, women participated on a large scale in war efforts through the military and other government agencies. Although much is known about the importance of medicine during WWI, most of the focus has been on male physicians who served abroad. Tens of thousands of women went abroad as nurses, ambulance drivers, and relief workers, but the contributions of women physicians in the war are less well known.

When the US entered the First World War in 1917, women physicians represented less than 5% of the physician workforce.1 Anticipating a surge in the demand for medical services, the Army Surgeon General sent Army Medical Reserve Corps registration forms to all physicians. These forms did not request physician sex because the respondents were assumed to be male.2 Many women physicians completed the forms, volunteering to serve in the Army Medical Reserve Corps. Their applications, however, were rejected on the belief that women could not handle the demands of the battlefield and were not qualified to command men.3,4 Women physicians were also told they could not serve because “it hadn’t been done” before, despite women serving in military nursing corps since 1901.5 Finally, they were told that because they could not vote, the use of the word “citizen” in the legislation that expanded the Army Medical Reserve Corps did not apply to them.6 In 1917, the Medical Women’s National Association (later renamed the American Medical Women’s Association) lobbied the US government to include women in the Army Medical Reserve Corps, asking that “opportunities for medical service be given to medical women equal to the opportunities given to medical men … and that the women so serving be given the same rank, title and pay given to men holding equivalent positions.”7 Ultimately, all petitions and appeals for inclusion in the Army Medical Reserve Corps were denied.3,4

Exclusion from the Army Medical Reserve Corps did not stop women physicians from contributing to the war effort. Dr Esther Pohl Lovejoy8 wrote, “The women of the medical profession were not called to the colors, but they decided to go anyway.” Women physicians held government and civilian leadership roles, created and ran their own hospital units, served in the US and French army as civil contract surgeons and volunteered in various organizations such as the American Red Cross, American Women’s Hospitals (AWH), Women’s Oversea Hospitals, and the American Fund for French Wounded. In fact, registrations conducted by the AWH showed that “almost one-third … of the medical women in the country…, active and retired, signified their willingness to provide medical service as part of the war effort … and compared favorably to the service rates of male colleagues.”4

In this article, we shed light on the underrecognized women leaders of WWI. Through their stories, we explore the barriers they faced and the opportunities they created.

Read the entire article on the Permanente Journal web site.

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