Foxwell library event, March 26.

WWIcvrIn honor of Women’s History Month and the April 6 centenary of the US entry into World War I, I’ll be speaking at 2 pm on March 26 at Jarrettsville Library (Jarrettsville, MD) about my anthology In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I. I’m looking forward to it, as I’m told one of the library’s book groups includes female veterans.


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:


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.


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).

Continue reading

Chicago’s WWI nurse (Mary) Lucile Pepoon.


Lucile Pepoon, from the 30 May 1921 Chicago Tribune

Mary Lucile Pepoon was born on 8 Aug. 1887 in Illinois, the daughter of physician and botanist Herman Silas Pepoon. After graduating from Chicago’s Lake View High School and obtaining her nursing credentials in 1909 from the city’s German American Hospital (later renamed Grant Hospital), she was a school nurse for Chicago’s Department of Health for seven years (writing a short statement about ethics for the school nurse). She headed for France on 19 May 1917 on the SS Mongolia but when the Mongolia‘s guns misfired and killed two nurses, the ship turned back to New York to make provisions for the dead and send injured nurse Emma Matzen to the hospital. It re-embarked on May 22, was attacked by a submarine on June 1,  arrived in Cornwall on June 2, and was greeted by King George V and Queen Mary. The personnel set off for France on June 11.

In Etaples, Pepoon served at Base Hospital No. 12 (dubbed “the Northwestern Unit,” as many of the medical officers and enlisted men were from Northwestern University). It was reported that her dedication to her nursing duties continued even while she was running a temperature, until she became more seriously ill in June 1918. In November 1918 she died (attributed variously to trench fever,  septicemia, and endocarditis) and was buried with full military honors in Somme American Cemetery. She received a posthumous Red Cross Medal (accepted by her father). In 1921, a tablet was placed in her memory in Chicago’s Independence Park (located near her family home). As the Chicago Tribune notes, the memorial boulder to Pepoon was rededicated in May 1966 at Graceland Cemetery (see this photo of the Pepoon memorial boulder, ca. 1956).

As this National Park Service report in the National Archives makes clear, the Independence Park District purchased Herman Silas Pepoon’s property on West Byron Street in 1930 to enlarge Independence Park.

Further reading:
Biographical sketch of Mary Lucile Pepoon
• Chicago Academy of Sciences on Herman Silas Pepoon

The Female Camouflagers of World War I.


Marguerite Carmel Becht (later Wilson), artist and member of the Camouflage Reserve Corps. Image from her 1918 passport application.

The National Archives’ Unwritten Record blog highlights World War I’s Camouflage Reserve Corps of the National League for Women’s Service, including cool photos of the women in training and painting the U.S.S. Recruit (a recruitment station built in the shape of a ship in New York City’s Union Square). The 30 Nov 1918 issue of American Rifleman notes that four women from the corps visited the Navy rifle range in Caldwell, NJ, and “made good at whatever they tried. And they tried practically everything in the way of marksmanship that we had to offer—from the short course to the machine gun” (197).

For a closer look at the camouflaging of the U.S.S. Recruit, visit the blog Camoupedia. One corps member who worked on the Recruit was artist Marguerite Carmel Becht (later Wilson), who went on to serve for nine months in YMCA canteens in Great Britain and France before her assignment to the YMCA facility at Walter Reed in 1919.

U.S. female casualties of WWI.

If I had to swim to get there I would go to France to serve the soldiers.

—Winona Caroline Martin, YMCA worker

A common cause of death for the U.S. women who passed away during their World War I service was influenza or its complications (such as pneumonia or meningitis). There were some, however, who were killed:

Edith Ayers and Helen Burnett Wood, army nurses from the Chicago area. Killed on 20 May 1917 en route to France by a projectile when their ship, the USS Mongolia, was conducting target practice (read an eyewitness account by their fellow nurse, Laura Huckleberry). Resulted in a congressional inquiry.

Winona Caroline Martin (b. 1882), YMCA canteen worker. A Long Island librarian who had worked industriously to be sent abroad with the YMCA, Martin was being treated for scarlet fever at Paris’ Claude Bernard Hospital. In a 11 Mar. 1918 German air raid on the hospital, Martin was killed. She is considered the first American woman to die in the war due to enemy action. As noted in this report in the Salt Lake Herald, Martin had declared, “I would go just the same if I knew the boat I went on would be torpedoed,” and provided an account of an earlier air raid on the hospital. Sadly, this marked the third death in the family for Martin’s physician brother, Captain Arthur Chalmers Martin, as he had previously lost his parents. The women’s auxiliary of the J. Franklin Bell VFW post in Rockville Centre, NY, was named in his sister’s honor in 1921.

Marion G. Crandell (b. 1872), Iowa-born YMCA canteen worker educated at the Sorbonne. Killed on 27 Mar. 1918 by an enemy shell in Ste. Menehould, France.

Ruth Landon (b. 1888), Red Cross worker from New York and a great-niece of Vice President Levi P. Morton. Killed by a German shell on 29 Mar. 1918 in St. Gervais Church in Paris. As this account from the Evening Star reports, her mother and sister also died in the attack.


Winona Caroline Martin, from her 1918 passport application


Marion G. Crandell, from her 1918 passport application


Ruth Landon, from her 1916 passport application

No. of WWI Navy women, by state.


Yeomen (F), Washington, DC. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The graphic I have produced below (or download here) shows American women who served in the World War I Navy by state. The top five states/territories are New York (2329), District of Columbia (1874), Massachusetts (1324), Virginia (1071), and Pennsylvania (1067). The total of Navy women in all states/territories is 11,859 (but note discrepancy in Maryland’s number).


Women’s Radio Corps of WWI.


Members of the Women’s Radio Corps. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Spearheaded by suffragist Erna von Rodenstein Owen (Mrs. Herbert Sumner Owen, 1859–1936), the Women’s Radio Corps was created in 1917 to train female wireless operators so that male operators could be released for war service. Courses were held at locations such as the YMCA and Hunter College in New York. Members included:

Belle W. Baruch (1899–1964), daughter of financier Bernard Baruch. After she received a first-grade telegraphy license, she was appointed to the US Army Signal Corps and taught Morse code to aviation recruits. As Mary Miller’s Baroness of Hobcaw notes, on one occasion Baruch and David Sarnoff (RCA president and former wireless operator) tapped jokes and messages to each other in Morse code.

Reed Lorena Reed (later Protheroe, 1895–1974). Maine native Reed had ambitions to be an actress before her interest turned to radio. As this piece from the Cambridge Chronicle and her obituary make clear, she was a teacher of Morse code to naval cadets, was an instructor in radio physics at Wellesley, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps during World War I. She married Owen G. Protheroe in 1918 and had one child, Polly. After taking the US Steamboat Inspection Pilots Examination in 1923, she was licensed to operate vessels up to 65 feet—a license she held for more than 50 years. She was a WAC in World War II and received a number of service medals.


Hunter College wireless students with Guglielmo Marconi and Erna Owen, July 1917. Owen’s daughter, Elise, is front row, second from right. Elise earned a first-grade emergency radio license.

“Fingerprint Girl” of the Navy: Blanche Stansbury.

Some of the Navy's WWi

Some of the Navy’s WWI “fingerprint girls,” including Blanche Stansbury, second from right. James Noonan in the photo is never referred to as a “fingerprint boy.”

Featured in my new collection In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I are some of the “fingerprint girls” of the Navy. Through fingerprint records, they assisted in identifying sailors who were involved in criminal activity or who had deserted. The fingerprint girls included Yeoman (F) Blanche Stansbury of Alexandria, VA. Stansbury married James Randall Caton Jr. (a major in the 155 Depot Brigade in World War I and a partner in an Alexandria law firm with his father), was a member of the American Legion, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.


Grave of Blanche Stansbury Caton, Arlington Cemetery. Photo by Elizabeth Foxwell.

Virginia’s WWI female veteran questionnaires.


Seal used on the Virginia War History Commission materials

Online at the Library of Virginia are nearly 15,000 questionnaires completed by some of the estimated 100,000 Virginians who served in World War I. They are one result of the work of the Virginia War History Commission (1919–28), which sought “to complete an accurate and complete history of Virginia’s military, economic and political participation in the World War.” Here is a small sample of female respondents:

Camilla Ruth Atkins (1891–1986) of Blackstone, VA, was an Army Nurse Corps nurse who served at Camp Lee (located between Petersburg and Hopewell, VA) from November 1917 to July 1918 and in Toul, France, from September 1918 to early February 1919. She wrote, “We got our hospital in working order in time for the St. Mihiel drive, then got patients from the Argonne, Th[iau]co[ur]t, etc. During the five months of our actual service we treated over 17,500 boys.” Although she noted that there was a shortage of staff, her pride can be seen in her comment, “…out of several thousand gas patients we treated[,] not one lost his eye sight.” The entry on her in The Final Roster: A Roster of the Soldiers Who Saw Service in the Great War from Nottoway County, VA notes that she also cared for German prisoners and returned American POWs during her overseas war service. The December 1928 issue of the American Journal of Nursing states that Atkins volunteered and was sent by the Red Cross to Puerto Rico to assist with health care in the aftermath of the Okeechobee hurricane. There is no mention of her Army service on her gravestone in Lakeview Cemetery, Blackstone.

Edna Brearley Bishop Myers (1894–1968) of Fredericksburg, VA, was an Army Corps nurse assigned to Toul and cared for those exposed to poison gas. She wrote, “The only thing that hurt was not to be able to do more.” She is buried in Old Saint David’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Cheraw, SC.

Nancy Adah Joynes Thomas (1892–1971) of Nassawadox, VA, enlisted as a Yeoman (F) in September 1918 and worked at the Navy Yard in Norfolk, VA. She wrote, “Until humanity changes, military service is an important and necessary adjunct to civil life” and “I have realized that a well balanced life should contain some interest and goal, which can only be worked out by the person concerned and not decided by others.” In 1932, she inherited the historic property Woodlands Farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.


Sara Mildred Tucker, from the Virginia War History Commission questionnaires.

Sara Mildred Tucker (1888–1952?) of Sandidges, VA, first cared for wounded servicemen at a New York City hospital before she was sent to St. Denis, France. She noted, “…[M]y Army service made me appreciate our boys as never before. . . . We had a fine site for our hospital—good officers, nurses, and splendid boys.”