World War I

“There really was nothing that a woman doctor could not do in a war zone. They treated virtually every kind of wound and disease, they underwent the same hardships, privations and dangers as men, [became prisoners of war], took part in devastating retreats, and worked under shells and bombs”

Leah Leneman. Medical Women at War 1914-1918.
Medical History,1994:38:160-177

The Australian Army did not permit the enlistment of female doctors until the Second World War. However, during World War I at least 14 Australian female doctors served overseas as military doctors.

They served as general doctors, surgeons and pathologists. They treated military casualties in hospitals in England, Egypt, on the Western Front and in makeshift field units during the Balkans campaign.

Many of them ended up with as much responsibility as male doctors, and were subject to the same rigors of service, risks and dangers. Two became prisoners of war, and all are inspirational examples of medical courage and leadership.

Despite no recognition from their own country, a number of the doctors were awarded foreign medals; by British, Serbian and French Militaries. Dr Pheobe Chapel, an Adelaide graduate, became the first woman doctor, and the only Australian woman, to be awarded a Military Medal, for gallantry in the field.

These women included:

Dr (Captain) Vera Scantlebury(-Brown)Endell St Military Hospital London
Dr Rachel CampionEndell St Military Hospital London
Dr Eleanor BourneEndell St Military Hospital London
Dr Emma BuckleyEndell St Military Hospital London
Dr Elizabeth Hamilton-BrowneEndell St Military Hospital London
Dr (Captain) Agnes BennettRAMC, Egypt and SWH Serbia
Dr Mary (Clementina) de GarisSWH Serbia and French Red Cross
Dr Lilian Violet CooperSWH Serbia
Dr (Majeur) Helen SextonFrench Army Autiel, Val de Grace
Major Phoebe ChappleQMAAC France
Dr (later Captain) Elsie DalyellSWH Royaumont and RAMC Malta and Salonika
Dr (Captain) Elaine LittleRAMC Étaples (France)
Dr (Captain) Katie Ardill (-Brice)RAMC Egypt
Dr Laura FosterBritish Forces, Belgium

Plaque at the doorway of Royaumont Abbey. From January 1915 until March1919 it operated continuously through the war with a staff entirely run by women. (Photograph: Neuhaus personal collection).

Record of Special Service Book Army Museum UK. Contains records of Dr Chapple MM and Dr Dalyell, OBE (Photograph: Neuhaus personal collection).

References for further WWI reading and research

  • Geddes, The Women’s Hospital Corps: forgotten surgeons of the First World War, SAGE Journals, 1994
  • Leneman, Medical Women at War 1914-191, Medical History, No. 38, 1994
  • Scantlebury, Vera, The Scantlebury-Brown Papers 1917-1918, held in the University of Melbourne Archives
  • Sandford Morgan, Elma, A Short History of Medical Women in Australia, Univeristy of Melbourne Library, 1970
  • De Navarro, Antonio, The Scottish Women’s Hospital at the French abbey of Royaumont, 1917
  • Crofton, Eileen, The women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front, Tuckwell Press, 1996
  • De Vries, Susanna, Heroic Australian Women in War, Harper Collins, 2004
  • Gilchrist, Hugh, Australians in Macedonia: the Women, Australians and the Greeks Vol II, Halstead Press, 1997
  • Williams, Lesley, No Easy Path. The Life and Times of Lilian Violet Cooper MD, FRACS (1861-1947), Australia’s first woman surgeon, Amphion Press, 1991
  • Wilson Honor, Physiotherapists in War: the story of South Australian Physiotherapists during World Wars I and II, Japan-Korea and Vietnam, Gillingham Printers, 1995
  • Mitchell A. M, Medical women and the medical services of the First World War, Sydney, published by the author, 1978
  • Hutton Neve, This Mad Folly, Library of Australian History

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