What some US women did after WWI.

Allison S. Finkelstein’s book Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917–1945 (University of Alabama Press, 2021) delves into efforts by U.S. women to commemorate World War I service by themselves and their loved ones. This sometimes took the form of contributing to the construction of memorials or establishing organizations where the women could continue their service to former servicemen and others as well as maintain ties with each other and seek to be remembered and recognized. Some stories are sad ones, such as accounts of indigent and disabled former women workers and the group of occupational therapists and physical therapists who did not succeed in obtaining veterans’ status during the lifespan of the organization. African American mothers could not join white chapters of an organization of war mothers, and they could only visit foreign cemeteries where their loved ones had been laid to rest on separate trips from white women. Frustrating is the lack of awareness that female WWI workers could bring skills to the U.S. conduct of WWII. The book underscores the need for continued discussion and recognition of U.S. women’s varied roles in World War I.

Ida W. Pritchett, lab researcher.

Ida W. Pritchett, 1908. Pritchett photo album, Bryn Mawr College Scrapbook and Photo Album Collection.

Ida Williams Pritchett was born in 1891 to astronomer Henry Smith Pritchett, president of MIT and the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching, and his first wife and cousin Ida. Pritchett earned a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr in 1914 and a doctorate of science in hygiene from Johns Hopkins University in 1922 (her dissertation was on the pathological effects of diphtheria toxin in the guinea pig). As a laboratory assistant at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1917, she worked with Dr. Carroll G. Bull to develop and distribute an anti-toxin for gas gangrene, which had resulted in amputated limbs and death for many wounded servicemen. Pritchett published a number of scientific articles and eventually turned to photography. She died in 1965.

1918-19 flu pandemic lecture, Aug 18.

Russell Johnson, curator of the History of Medicine and Sciences at UCLA Special Collections, will give a virtual presentation on Building a Collection: Personal Narratives from the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic,” which will cover firsthand accounts of the flu pandemic and its impact on life and death in the military and at home and discuss collecting, writing styles, handwriting, genealogy, digitization, and other topics.

The presentation is scheduled for August 18, 6-7 pm ET. This free event is sponsored by the New York Academy of Medicine Library, but a $10 donation is suggested. To register: https://www.nyam.org/events/event/building-collection-personal-narratives-1918-1919-influenza-pandemic/

25 Sept. 1918 diary entry by nurse Ethel Anderson (Base Hospital no. 44, Evacuation Hospital no. 5) about patients with influenza. NYPL

“The very edge of hell”: Ada Mabel Whyte, nurse.

Ada Mabel Whyte, from her 1918 passport application

Born in Oneonta, NY, Ada Mabel Whyte (1877–1963) trained as a nurse in New York hospitals, serving as head nurse and later matron of Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg, MA. In March 1918, she sailed for France to serve as a Red Cross nurse. A letter published in the December 1918 Public Health Nurse Quarterly to Ella Phillips Crandall, executive secretary of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, provides a glimpse of some of her experiences.

I have been in France nearly seven months . . .

My first two months were spent with the Children’s Bureau, where I helped teach some young French women something about the care of the child or infant . . . .

I was then sent to an American Red Cross hospital to help care for American boys. When you are washing blood stains from the face of an American boy and he looks up and says, “You’re the first American woman I’ve spoken to in six months,” nothing else in the world matters, but just that you are an American woman. After a month with these chaps I had only one ambition, to make them clean and rest their tired backs.

Since the latter part of July I have been in the Service Santé. An American nurse or nurses, with an aid or aids who speak French are sent to French hospitals where there are American soldiers.

My first assignment took me to the very edge of hell. Up near the front an old Chateau had been converted into a hospital. When we arrived there was a constant line of ambulances bringing in French, American and Boche wounded. The building and the yards were crowded. There was our khaki everywhere, our khaki stained with blood.

Everywhere you turned was misery and suffering, and yet you were constantly seeing little acts of consideration which clutched your very heart.

I saw a wounded soldier with his good arm brushing flies from the face of a comrade who lay dying on the stretcher beside him. One plucky little chap with a bad compound fracture of the fore leg said, “Nurse, take these other fellows before you do me. They’re hurt a lot worse.”

Those American doctors, I don’t know their names, but I shall never forget them. Their attitude was “don’t let the boys suffer more than is really necessary.” Some of these nurses had been going thirty-six hours with apparently no thought of stopping. The general regret has been that one could only do one person’s work. We were here only two days, as all the patients were evacuated. We then spent three days in an American field hospital as near to the front as our government permits women to go. This was a very interesting experience. This hospital was equipped with everything except nurses, even patients. I never saw such an appreciative group of surgeons. They all declared it was useless to try to do anything without nurses. “This is Heaven,” they said, the first day they had nurses in the operating room.

Later I spent several days in a French military hospital and for nearly three months I have been in a French mixte [sic] hospital which is under the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul and which receives both civil and miltary patients. We have watched our group of Americans dwindle from thirty-two to six patients. We are hoping they may all be sent to an American hospital very soon, as we are needed elsewhere. . . .

What wonderful news we are receiving, the end is really in sight at last. (337–38)

Whyte later served as a member of New York’s State Tuberculosis Committee and field nurse at the Florida Tuberculosis Sanitorium.

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.


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.