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Auteur Bericht
Percy Toplis

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BerichtGeplaatst: 03 Feb 2011 14:10    Onderwerp: MEDICAL WOMEN AT WAR 1914-18 Reageer met quote

by LEAH LENEMAN, Medical History, 1994, 38: 160-177

Women had a long and difficult struggle before they were allowed to obtain a medical
education.' Even in 1914 the Royal Free was the only London teaching hospital to admit
them and some universities (including Oxford and Cambridge) still held out against them.
The cost of a medical education continued to be a major obstacle, but at least there were
enough schools by then to ensure that British women who wanted and could afford one
could get it. The difficulty was in finding residency posts after qualifying, in order to make a
career in hospital medicine. Few posts were available outside the handful of all-women
hospitals, and medical women were channelled away from the more prestigious
specialities-notably general surgery-into those less highly regarded, like gynaecology
and obstetrics, and into asylums, dispensaries, public health, and, of course, general

When war broke out in August 1914, the Association of Registered Medical Women
expected that women doctors would be needed mostly for civilian work, realizing that "as a
result of the departure of so many medical men to the front there will be vacancies at home
which medical women may usefully fill".3 As early as February 1915 it was estimated that a
sixth of all the medical men in Scotland had taken commissions in the RAMC. In April of
that year it was reported that "there is hardly a resident post not open to a qualified woman if
she cares to apply for it". By January 1917 more than half the British medical profession had
been called up for military service, and that summer there were "great and unforseen
casualties in the commissioned ranks of the RAMC", which further increased pressure on
civilian medical practitioners. Anecdotal evidence survives of a woman surgeon in
Glasgow, Ellen Off, taking over the practice of one surgeon after another as they went off to
the Front.4

During those years every effort was made to persuade girls to enter medicine. Whereas
before the war it was difficult to get clinical training, by April 1915 a writer could declare
that "since the war, this has been entirely changed, and the big hospitals are only too
thankful to get fully qualified women".5 A constant stream of articles appeared in national
and provincial newspapers, in women's and girls' magazines, and in the medical press
about how greatly women doctors were needed and how there had been a terrific expansion
of opportunities for them.6 When an extension to the London School of Medicine for
Women was opened in autumn 1916, by Queen Mary, the Daily Telegraph (8 October)
began its report with the words: "To the women doctors the war has brought triumph". One
after another the London teaching hospitals began to admit women.7 Medical women were
attached to munitions factories, and Dr Jane Walker, first President of the Medical
Women's Federation, was consulting physician to the Ministry of Munitions and Ministry
of Food.8 But the war did not only expand opportunities at home; it also opened up
possibilities for types of work hitherto barred to women. Service in the war zone was seen
by some medical women as a patriotic duty and a chance to prove themselves in a man's
world. This paper is about their experiences.

Initially the War Office refused to entertain the idea of a medical woman serving in a
military hospital, so those who wished to do so offered their services to allied governments.
Many of them ended up with as much responsibility as any male doctor-and were in as
much danger, making nonsense of War Office claims that medical women could offer only
"limited" service in the field. Reluctant though the War Office was to admit that medical
women had any part to play in military hospitals, the pressures on civilian doctors were so
great that eventually it was forced to recruit them. But medical women who answered the
War Office call did so under very different terms from their male counterparts, since they
were not commissioned officers.

In the final section of the paper an attempt is made to look at the later careers of the
medical women whose wartime exploits have been related, and to question whether that
experience had any effect on the position of women in medicine after the war ended.

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