Aftermath: Health of U.S. Women in WWI.

“Super-sensitive people should not come here.”

—Margaret Hall, on the suicides of her colleagues Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell after their service in France (see Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country)

Although there has been recent coverage about the health care needs of U.S. female service members, it is not a new matter. In 1923, the American Legion called attention to disabled American women who had served in World War I. In 1931, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA), the first congresswoman elected from New England who had served in France and at Walter Reed, asked President Hoover to open homes and hospitals specifically for female veterans.

Accounts of U.S. women who served in the war and had their lives cut short tend to be deeply sad, not least because often little of their story is known. The following are some examples.

  • Yeoman (F) Genevieve Cox Petrone was murdered by her husband on the Southern Pacific ferry Santa Clara in October 1917. The husband’s suicide note included in the newspaper account suggests that Petrone intended to leave him after a history of marital discord. Another newspaper article stated that they were separated.
  • Canteen workers Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell jumped from the ship taking them to the United States in January 1919 after suffering under bombardment in France (discussed in my book In Their Own Words).
  • Azeele Packwood, a member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps (affiliated with the Red Cross), was found dead from chloroform asphyxiation at the Palisades in January 1919. According to newspaper accounts, she was despondent after the October 1918 death in France of her close friend (and rumored boyfriend) Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, son of millionaire banker Harris C. Fahnestock. Packwood, the daughter of businessman and Civil War/Spanish-American War veteran George H. Packwood of Tampa, was not mentioned in Fahnestock’s will. Her nephew, Ernest Packwood MacBryde, asserted that she was murdered. Azeele Street in Tampa is named after her. (The New-York Tribune has side-by-side accounts of the Packwood and Cornwell deaths).
  • Former Yeoman (F) Grace Coombs, 28, committed suicide in her lodgings in Washington, DC, in April 1919. Relatives attributed it to ill health. Her brother, Guy Coombs, was an actor in silent films.
  • Yeoman (F) Flossie May Rosell, who graduated in 1917 from Colorado State Normal School (the precursor to University of Northern Colorado) and enlisted in the Navy in September 1918, drowned at Great Falls, VA, in September 1920. Her body was discovered in Maryland.  The coroner deemed it an accident (without hearing testimony from witnesses who had details about Rosell’s despondency due to erratic employment, which probably influenced the earlier accounts listing the death as suicide).
  • Dr. Caroline Purnell’s 1923 obituary attributes her death to overwork during the war. Purnell received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and honorary French citizenship for her service with the American Women’s Hospitals.
  • The 1925 death of war composer and former senior chief yeoman (F) Daisy May Erd is attributed in her death certificate to the tuberculosis she contracted during her military service.
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Members of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps, September 1918. Azeele Packwood is in the middle row, far right. National Archives.

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Marion Gregory, translator/entertainer; Alice Gregory, surgeon.

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Marion Gregory, from her 1917 passport application

During World War I, Fannie Marion Gregory (1874–1923) served as a YMCA entertainer/canteen worker and a translator with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals (sponsored by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Assn) that counted her sister, Dr. Alice Gregory (1876–1953), as a key staffer before Alice resigned to serve in the French Army medical corps. The Gregory sisters had a few notables in their family tree: their paternal grandfather was Dudley S. Gregory, the first mayor of Jersey City, NJ, and a NJ congressman; and their maternal grandfather was J. Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of modern gynecology” and recently the subject of statue controversy.

Marion recounted her experiences in Memories of Service in France (1918). She left the United States on the Espagne on 3 Nov. 1917 and remained in France for seven months. She stayed at first with her widowed aunt, Eliza Sims Pratt, who had a house in Paris. She wrote:

One had to try to get used to seeing maimed men everywhere. At first it was heartrending for the newcomer, but it was beautiful to see the care and devotion shown the returned mutiles by everyone. (9)

She had firsthand experience with the large German gun called Big Bertha and air raids:

The night raids were horrible. No words can convey the sickening sensation of hearing the explosion of a bomb. The firing of the defense is nerve-racking, but when the horrible bomb comes one’s heart is cold at the thought of what it means. (11)

Marion next went to Labouheyre—a village near Bordeaux—with American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff to care for civilians and provide medical assistance to nearby US Army engineers. She worked with refugee families before she moved to YMCA service as a singer and canteen worker (noting that she was unable to cope with the climate of the hospital’s locale).

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Dr. Alice Gregory in WWI uniform. National Archives

Her sister Alice graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1902 and was on staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with fellow Cornell Medical College alums Caroline Sandford Finley and Anna von Sholly. Her WWI service began in early 1915, when she was part of the medical team for approximately five months at a French military hospital headed by Dr. Percy Turnure and located in Chateau de Passy, about 60 miles southeast of Paris. In 1917, Alice set off for France with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff (including Finley and von Sholly). Her matter-of-fact, often wry account “Work at a French Army Dressing Station” (Women’s Medical Journal, Jan. 1920) describes day-to-day life close to the front as a first lieutenant in the French Army medical corps. Stated Alice, “we averaged 1000 wounded every 24 hours” (3). Her 21 Apr. 1953 obituary in the New York Times noted that at this station, “it was not unusual for her to perform forty-two operations in eight hours,” and her account indicates that these procedures were not minor—”infected compound fractures, chest wounds, cranial injuries, and amputations galore” (1). Alice received the Croix de Guerre for her service.

Marion and Alice are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Dr. Alice Gregory, left, fences. From Around the World with a Camera (1917)

“After I come home, of course I couldn’t nurse anymore”: Jennie Cuthbert Brouillard.

Born in Kansas, Jennie Cuthbert Brouillard (1886–1985) earned her nursing credentials from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, and served as a nurse during World War I at Base Hospital No. 46. Also known as the “Oregon unit,” the hospital specialized in neurosurgical cases at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse in France. From 23 July 1918 to 19 January 1919, the hospital admitted 8366 patients.

According to a 1976 interview with Brouillard by the Latah County [ID] Historical Society, Brouillard worked as a nurse for about three years—including in Coos Bay, OR—before her World War I service. She joined the army in 1917 and first served as a nurse in a shipyard. She was assigned to the hospital at North Carolina’s Camp Greene for three months, then was sent to New York. On 4 July 1918, Brouillard headed for Liverpool on the Aquitania (mentioning in a letter that she worked one night in the ship’s hospital and in an interview that some of the men had to be knocked out to get them on the ship; many had never been away from home before). She arrived in France on 14 July. Her experiences are featured in a 31 Aug 1918 letter to Sergeant Chester F. Leighton of Camp Greene, in the 1976 interview (which starts at about minute 16 after the interview with Brouillard’s sister), and in a 2015 Latah Eagle article based on the oral history.
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Documentary on US female physicians in World War I.

The American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) is producing a short documentary on its heroic members who served in World War I and is in need of funding support for the film. The AMWA plans to show the film at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City in September. For further information, visit the AMWA Web page about the documentary.

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Surgeon Caroline Sandford Finley operates on a fracture.

Marian Baldwin, canteen worker.

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Marian Baldwin,  from her 1917 passport application

“…[T]heir souls shine through their eyes.”
—WWI canteen worker Marian Baldwin on U.S. servicemen she encountered in France (Canteening Overseas 78)

Daughter of Elbert Francis Baldwin (1857–1927), editor of the Outlook (read William H. Rowe Jr.’s ode to Baldwin), and resident of Lakewood, NJ, Marian Baldwin (1895–1972) sailed for France in June 1917 on La Touraine, headed for canteen service in Paris with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, she refers to “Frank Sayre” on the ship with her; this may be Francis Bowes Sayre, son-in-law of President Wilson, who was en route to France to serve with the YMCA.

Once in Paris, she helped out at a new YMCA canteen operated by Adele Verley of Providence, RI,  and Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. A graduate of Miss Porter’s School, Baldwin could speak French and German (although she was not very confident in her French-speaking ability and described herself as “a lady with moods … who has been spoiled all her life” [88]). She provided reactions from the crew of the Alcedo, who previously had rescued the men of the Finland and the Antilles before a German U-boat torpedoed their ship.

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Duluth News-Tribune on WWI nurse May MacGregor.

In “Near the Front Lines,” the Duluth News-Tribune highlights the service of Bemidji resident May Olive MacGregor (1889–1980), a nurse at Mobile Hospital No. 1 in France (which worked near Chateau Thierry and in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne areas). In an often harrowing account, nurse Ida M. Anderson stated that during the hospital’s period of active service, it conducted more than 6000 major operations and had 413 deaths.

Further reading:
Nurse Cared for Wounded as Airplanes Dropped Bombs.” Bemidji Daily Pioneer 16 Apr. 1919.

Citations Won by Bemidji Nurse on France Battlefields.” Bemidji Daily Pioneer 17 Apr. 1919.

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Mobile Hospital No. 1, Fromereville, France. Nat Lib of Medicine.

New book features WWI nurse Madelon Battle Hancock.

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Madelon Battle Hancock. Bisbee [AZ] Daily Rev., 27 Dec. 1919

North Carolina and the Great War is a new book by Jessica Bandel published by University of North Carolina Press, which draws on the collections of the North Carolina Museum of History and other institutions. It includes the experiences of Asheville-born Madelon Battle Hancock (1882–1930), who earned her nursing credentials from New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, served with the British Red Cross in Belgium, and received numerous medals. Her father was Samuel Westray Battle, a Navy surgeon and physician to the Vanderbilt family. Wrote Hancock in September 1918:

I am on Night Duty again and alone and we get 39 and 49 in a night all to be washed and their dressings done besides treatment for most of them and by morning I am like a ressurected [sic] corpse, I really never was so tired in my life[.]

Further resources:

Letters from Madelon Battle Hancock to her family
Medals of Madelon Battle Hancock

Cora Elm, Native American nurse in WWI France.

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Cora Elm, 1916.

Born in February 1891 in Wisconsin, Cora Elm was a member of the Oneida Nation and identified herself in her account “Life, Belief, and the War” (1942) as “a very firm Episcopalian” (Oneida Lives [2005] 290). Her father, a farmer who understood the benefits of education, first enrolled her in 1906 at the Carlisle Indian School (which athlete Jim Thorpe attended), but she left the school for a time and did not graduate until 1913. With her grandmother well known as a midwife, she trained as a nurse at the Episcopal Hospital in Philadelphia with the financial help of her father and her wealthy employers. She graduated in 1916 and stayed on as supervisor of wards at the hospital. A March 1917 newspaper item indicates that she participated in a suffrage demonstration at the White House.

It appears that Elm sailed for Liverpool on the Leviathan on December 15, 1917, and reached France on Christmas Day. She and her fellow nurses of Base Hospital No. 34 (aka the Episcopal Unit, as the personnel came from the Episcopal Hospital) first were split among three hospitals as the base hospital was readied; it opened in Nantes in April 1918. The unit history states that the hospital admitted 9100 patients in nine months and had a death rate of 1.3 percent. Elm wrote the section on the YWCA in the unit history. She says laconically in “Life, Belief, and the War,” “My life overseas was not very easy. Although I was in a base hospital, I saw a lot of the horrors of war. I nursed many a soldier with a leg cut off, or an arm” (295).

Her February 1920 passport application indicated that the Red Cross was sending her to Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania for nursing service. In January 1921, the American Journal of Nursing reported that Elm had married James E. Sinnard. Her son, James Jr., was born in 1926. She served as ward supervisor in several veterans hospitals, including Wood Veterans Hospital in Milwaukee. The 1940 census lists her as divorced, nursing in a private hospital, and living with her widowed sister, with her son as residing with her ex-husband. Elm died in June 1949.

Daisy May Erd, Yeoman (F) and war composer.

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Daisy M. Pratt Erd. From Sept. 1918 National Magazine

Canadian-born musician Daisy May Pratt (1882–1925) married barber Louis Erd and had two children, Norma and Georgia. She enlisted in the Navy in April 1917 and rose to the rank of senior chief yeoman at the Boston Navy Yard, supervising the female workers, attending to welfare needs among the sailors, and establishing the Hingham Naval Training Station Band. She composed the following war-related songs, designating some of her royalties for Naval Relief:

• “The Rear Admiral Wood One-Step” (1918).
Sheet music

• “Uncle Sam’s Ships” (1917). Listen to the songSheet music

Trenches• “We’ll Carry the Star-Spangled Banner through the Trenches” (1918). Listen to the song –  Sheet music

• “Welcome Home” (1919). Sheet music

In March 1918, Erd received a gold medal for war service as a personal gesture of recognition by William R. Rush, commandant of the Boston Navy Yard. She was discharged from the Navy in April 1920 and was instrumental in establishing the first female American Legion post in Massachusetts. She supported the payment of a bonus to female veterans. She died of tuberculosis in 1925—a disease, the death certificate stated, that she had contracted during her military service.