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christine liava'a

American Women doctors in WW1

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christine liava'a

Other practitioners joined the Medical Women's National Association, later changed to the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA), where they continued to put pressure on the government to allow them to fill the positions left empty by the men who had been mobilized. One of the first campaigns of the AMWA was the effort to have women doctors commissioned on an equal basis with men in WWI. They circulated a petition among their members, which targeted the class and sex discrimination made by the Surgeon-General. Thus, numerous women had applied to the army and been rejected on the basis of their sex because the army stipulated that the word "person" meant men, not women. In June 1917, women physicians endorsed a resolution demanding that women be given the same rank, title, and pay given to men. The AMWA also organized the American Women's Hospitals, which eventually sent 128 women physicians abroad from 1918 to 1920. Some physicians were also certified with the Red Cross for service overseas. At one point, more than sixty women doctors worked in France under the Red Cross while they wore the uniform of the American Women's Hospital. In the same joint venture, a few physicians were also sent to Serbia in January of 1919.

Finally, the government permitted a handful of women to sign on as contract sur-geons with the army. This was considered a major step forward for female physicians because they had only been able to serve as nurses in previous wars, with the two exceptions of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker who had been awarded a contract in the Civil War and Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee who was appointed acting assistant surgeon of the United States Army on August 29, 1898, during the Spanish American War.

Fifty-five women comprise the first group of contract surgeons who are credited with making their official debut as "women army doctors." (14) On March 8, 1918, the first women was hired, followed fifteen days later by the second appointment. Fifty-three other women were appointed during the next eight months, and they represented seventeen states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Most of them were hired at first lieutenant's pay, without rank, pension, bonus, or regulation uniform. While these women were eligible for membership in the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States of America, only a few of them availed themselves of the privilege. (15) By October 1919, all but two contracts were discharged. While the majority of these physicians saw duty in the United States, accounts indicate that seven of these women received orders from overseas.

It is difficult to address the commonalities among such a diverse group of women, but it is evident that they had to deal with many similar issues related to training, practice, and their private lives. For example, Elizabeth Van Cortland Hocker who graduated from the Laura Memorial Woman's Medical College (University of Cincinatti) in 1897, expressed the same longing that had been echoed earlier in the Civil War by some nurses and women soldiers who disguised themselves as men--the desire to have the freedom that went with being a man. (16) "When the first World War called every able-bodied man and woman into some service," she confided, "I wished, for the second time in my life, I were a man and could be eligible for active service in the Army. The first time I envied the man was when I watched our devoted family physician come into our home and go to others in sickness and bring relief and comfort." (17)

Despite the prevailing attitude that held women doctors should not be at the front, she was accepted as a contract surgeon and sent to the United States General Hospital No. 1 in Williamsbridge, New York. There she received three months' intensive training in anesthesia before she was sent overseas on an English refugee ship that had been recently torpedoed and displayed a large steel plate covered over the hole to prove it. As Hocker boarded the vessel, boxes of T.N.T. were being carefully loaded on at the same time. When she arrived in France, she was assigned to a surgical team while the battle of the Argonne was in full blast around her. For ten days with only a few hours' sleep at night, she worked in a makeshift operating room constructed in the lobby of an abandoned hotel. She had almost no time to catch her breath before she was ordered to follow the troops in the drive to Metz that took place the first part of November 1918. With constant air battles raging over her head, she continued her work at an Evacuation Hospital, and when the Armistice was signed she remained in France carrying on her anesthetic work at base hospitals. When the camp was closed she was ordered home and she "almost regretted it"--a sentiment that other woman doctors and nurses reported in postwar years, regardless of the war in which they served. (18)

Like Elizabeth Van Cortland Hocker, Dr. Frances Edith Haines wanted to do what was considered the unthinkable in 1918--volunteer as an army doctor. After she graduated from medical school at the University of Nebraska in 1913, she worked in Chicago, Illinois, as an anesthetist in Presbyterian Hospital and taught anesthesia at Rush Medical College. (19) When war broke out, she was determined to become an army surgeon (her father and five brothers had been Union soldiers from Indiana) and she engaged in a futile correspondence for months with the Surgeon General's Office. Realizing she was not likely to be successful in her quest unless she had male support, she solicited the aid of Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis (Chief Surgeon of U. S. Base Hospital Unit No. 13 in Hoboken, New Jersey) who needed an anesthetist for the unit. (20) While this strategy was successful as it led to her appointment as a contract surgeon, Haines commented regretfully: "Not being a man was the only thing which prevented my being commissioned." (21)

On May 19, 1918, she sailed on the Justicia from New York Harbor with the officers of Base Hospital No. 13--the first woman physician in the U. S. army to be sent overseas. After a short stint in England, she was sent to France. In early June she was housed in the temporary hospital barracks that had been erected at Limoges, but the first convoy of patient arrived before the corpsmen and nurses could set up all the beds or unpack any equipment. In less than a week another convoy arrived, bringing the total count of wounded to some 900 soldiers. Haines was in charge of anesthesia, and since many of the nurses had been sent to the front, she had to train enlisted men in the administration of ether. She recalled that "we worked all day and some of us worked all night." When her tour of duty ended, she had served nine months "in a land of blackouts or poor illumination."

She continued her army work for the next four and one-half months at the U. S. Army General Hospital No. 28, Fort Sheridan, Illinois. Again she was in charge of anesthetics in as many as six operating rooms in the morning and usually two or three in the afternoons. In addition, she supervised a staff that took their "gas-oxygen apparatus" to the wards so they could change anywhere from 10 to 15 painful dressings a day. When her contract ended in October of 1919, she returned to Rush where she became a clinical instructor in surgery (anesthetics) until 1925.

While Haines, like many women physicians, knew how to garner male support in order to reach her goal, Dr. Kate B. Karpeles did not have to look far for such encouragement and help. (22) She was fortunate to have a physician for a father. More than anyone else, he was aware of the demands of a medical career, yet he encouraged her to study medicine when she announced her intentions. She chose to study at Johns Hopkins University which was not only known for maintaining the highest possible entrance requirements, but it became the first medical school in America to require a bachelor's degree for admission. Although she earned her medical degree in 1914, Karpeles had great difficulty in obtaining an internship because she was a woman. (23) Ultimately she became the first female to intern at Garfield Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C. For a graduate of Johns Hopkins, however, this was considered a step down in the quality of her training. (24) Undeterred as always, she also earned the distinction of being the first woman to be appointed as a contract surgeon with the army. In postwar years she became president of the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA) where one of her goals was to increase its membership. (25)

Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military > Summer 2002

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