The U.S. female doctors who served in WWI.

Great indignation has been felt for some time among American women because American women physicians are not given commissions by the Government as are the men. The only way a woman physician can go abroad under the Government is as a nurse.

—”Women Physicians Going Abroad for War Service,” Evening Public Ledger, 4 May 1918

After U.S. female doctors offered their professional expertise to the U.S. army during World War I and were rebuffed, they, undaunted, found other ways to serve both at home and abroad. The 10 Apr. 1918 Evening Times Republican reported that 33 percent of practicing U.S. female physicians had registered for war service through the organization American Women’s Hospitals (formed by the War Service Committee of the precursor to the American Medical Women’s Association, or AMWA). The AMWA’s new online exhibition highlights some of these women physicians, such as the following:

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Caroline Sandford Finley operates on a fracture.

Dr. Caroline Sandford Finley (1875–1936). The New York-born Finley graduated from Cornell Medical School in 1901. She was on staff at the Elizabeth Blackwell-founded New York Infirmary for Women and Children. From November 1917 to June 1919, she headed an all-female U.S. hospital unit in France under the auspices of the Women’s Oversea Hospitals (supported by $200,000 from the National American Woman Suffrage Association) and held the rank of lieutenant in the Medical Corps of the French army. At Chateau d’Ognon in summer 1918, German planes bombed her hospital. For her service, she received the Croix de Guerre from the French government, and on November 22, 1919, the Prince of Wales awarded her an MBE on the HMS Renown in recognition of her care in Metz of former British POWs suffering from influenza.

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Rosalie Slaughter Morton, from the July 1918 Harper’s Bazar

Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton (1872–1968). The Lynchburg, VA-born Morton graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and studied in Europe after her residency. After establishing a successful gynecology practice in Washington, DC, and marrying lawyer George Baxter Morton in 1905, she relocated her practice to New York. In 1916, she became the first female faculty member in the surgical department at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She headed the AWH’s War Service Committee, which petitioned the War Department for military commissions for female physicians and attended to the care of civilians affected by war. Although the committee was unsuccessful in its quest for military commissions, it found plenty to do in civilian health care. As Morton wrote in the July 1918 Harper’s Bazar, “Almost at once we were called upon for specialists in pediatrics, psychiatry and tuberculosis, as well as for skilled surgeons.” Morton tended to French wounded; learned about the management of field hospitals; cared for patients in a 3000-bed field hospital in Macedonia; and was decorated by the French, Serbian, and Yugoslav governments for her work. As this newspaper article states, after the American Women’s Hospitals sent U.S. women doctors to Serbia, Serbian officials requested additional female physicians, as they could provide care to Muslim women (unlike male doctors).

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Olga Stastny, from her 1922 passport application

Dr. Olga Stastny (1878–1952). The six-foot Stastny graduated from the University of Nebraska medical school at age 35 and interned in obstetrics at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children. In 1919, she traveled to France under the auspices of Anne Morgan’s American Committee for Devastated France. She worked as an anesthesiologist in Luzancy (about 60 miles from Paris) and was awarded the French Medaille de Reconnaissance for her service. She later chaired the Department of Hygiene and Social Service within Prague’s Social Service Training School, headed the YMCA’s Health Department, assisted with refugee health care during a typhus epidemic in Greece (for which she received the Cross of St. George), operated a private practice in Omaha, and was a faculty member at her alma mater.

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Alice Weld Tallant, from the 1897 Smith College classbook

Dr. Alice Weld Tallant (1875–1958). Tallant received her AB from Smith and her MD from Johns Hopkins University. A faculty member of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, she served with the Smith College Relief Unit in France from July 1917 to February 1918. “Les américaines dans la Somme” (Le Gaulois, 2 Sept. 1917) mentions her leading the unit with the assistance of Dr. Maud Kelly and the unit’s work in 10 French villages. She received the Croix de Guerre for her service. In March 1918, she described the difficult conditions faced by civilians: “These poor, brave village people were just recovering from the oppression of the German army . . . and now this present drive is again bringing them all the horrors of the enemy.”

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Anna Tjomsland, from the 23 Dec. 1916 Collier’s Weekly

Dr. Anna Tjomsland (1880–1968). Born in Norway, Anna Tjomsland earned her bachelor’s and medical degrees from Cornell; she became a naturalized American citizen in 1917. She interned and then became a staff member at Bellevue. Tjomsland went to Vichy as a contract surgeon, serving as an anesthetist in the “Bellevue Unit” (aka U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 1). Her book, Bellevue in France (1941), describes experiences of the unit such as the following:

To the severely ill or wounded the thought of sleep was far away. They did not sleep—merely dozed. Vague dreams of details unending, of empty canteens and blown-up rations, of dead buddies; sudden sharp visions of home and mother, of familiar faces and things chasing through their brains; held between a desire to live and the end of suffering, they lay in impassive silence, wailing now and then in their delirium, we who cared for them mute witnesses to their suffering and patience. (76)

Update, 30 July 2017: The AMWA is accepting donations for a short documentary on U.S. female physicians in World War I, which will be shown in Sept. 2017 at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

Further resources:

• “The American Medical Women’s Association and the Role of the Woman Physician, 1915–1990,” AMWA.

• “The American Women’s Hospitals in World War I France,” Drexel online exhibition.

• “Clearing House for Women Physicians’ War Work,” New York Tribune, 3 Mar. 1918

• Elaine Engst and Blaine Friedlander, “Cornell Rewind: A Great School Faces the Great War,” notes the WWI contributions of the following alumni: AEF director of nursing Julia Catherine Stimson and doctors Mary Merritt Crawford, Gertrude Guild Fisher McCann, Anna Kleegman, Jean Harwood Pattison, Anna Tjomsland, and Anna Irene von Sholly.

• “Dr. Caroline Sanford [sic] Finley,” Medical Woman’s Journal 44.5 (1937), 139. Finley appears on the cover of this issue.

• Stepanka Andrews Koryta, “Dr. Olga Stastny, Her Service to Nebraska and the World,” Nebraska History 68 (1987): 20-27.

• Rosalie Slaughter Morton, A Woman Surgeon (1937). “a deeply moving story of the evolution of one of the most prominent pioneer women surgeons in the United States”—JAMA.

Not Waiting for the Call: American Women Physicians and World War I,” Home Before the Leaves Fall: The Great War 1914–1918.

• Dr. Caroline M. Purnell, Obituary, 5 Feb. 1923. The obituary attributes Dr. Purnell’s death to overwork during the war.

• “Woman Doctors Will Help Care for Wounded Soldiers,” Sunday Star, 18 Nov. 1917

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2 thoughts on “The U.S. female doctors who served in WWI.

  1. I would like to ask if you have ever found any reference to the service of Dr. Clara G. Cook of San Antonio, Texas, my great-aunt, in World War I. She went to France on a troopship in 1918 and operated on servicemen near the front, and later ran a hospital in Paris for refugee women and children. I want to write her story but I have few real facts and don’t know where to start my research. I remember Armistice Day parades when I was a boy when she would wear her uniform with her captain’s bars and the US insignia.and march proudly. Perhaps I have left this task too late, for I am now 83 years old, but I want to try.

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  2. Clara Gathright Cook (1882-1970) was the great-niece of Thomas Sanford Gathright, the first president of Texas A&M University. She earned her medical degree from the University of Texas in 1914. Her 1915 application to the Bexar County Medical Society indicates that her practice was devoted to women and children; the application includes a photo of her:
    https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth586619/

    Her February 1918 passport application indicates that she was leaving ca. March 1, 1918, for Red Cross work in France. An item from the June 1918 _Texas State Journal of Medicine_ states that she was with the American Women’s Hospitals (of the American Medical Women’s Assn; discussed in this blog post). So her uniform would have been a Red Cross uniform.

    There is apparently an article about her war work titled “San Antonio Woman Saves One Thousand Lives” from the _San Antonio Evening News_, but I don’t know the date, and I don’t have access to this database. This item from the _San Antonio Express_ refers to her return from France:
    https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth430699/

    The following M.A. thesis has several references to Cook:
    https://shsu-ir.tdl.org/shsu-ir/bitstream/handle/20.500.11875/68/DIXON-THESIS-2016.pdf?sequence=1

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