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.
WomensMotorCorps

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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