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)

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.

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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