Researching Australian women's medical contribution to World War I

During World War I, many Australian women doctors who sought to enlist were turned away by male army chiefs who believed the war was 'no place for women', or that their medical skills were not up to the task. A number of Australian women doctors made their way independently overseas to serve their country and to contribute their skills to the war effort. Faculty of Arts alumna, post-doctoral researcher and historian at the Australian Centre, Dr Heather Sheard, is currently researching the contribution of Australian women surgeons and medical officers in World War I. She shares some of the challenges of researching the ANZAC womens' war efforts.

Marginal voices are difficult to research even when they are embroiled in an event with the magnitude and impact of the Great War.  By the outbreak of WWI, close to 130 women were registered as medical practitioners in Australia and women had been graduating from the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney for twenty-three years.  Like their British Empire colleagues, Australian women doctors attempted to enlist with the various allied medical corps but were turned away.  They were not yet acknowledged in either the institutional or informal structures of a male-dominated profession and enlistment was not countenanced.  Surgery and the treatment of male patients were generally regarded as inappropriate endeavours for women doctors in 1914, and the notion of women directing lower ranked men was contentious.  Undeterred, more than twenty Australian female medical practitioners joined voluntary hospitals and mobile field units, organised outside the formal structures of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC). They served as surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists and medical officers across the major battle zones of the Great War.

Doctors at the suffragette hospital, London's Endell Street Military Hospital
Doctors at the suffragette hospital, London's Endell Street Military Hospital

Six female graduates of the University of Melbourne medical school served in WWI.  Of the fifty-seven members of final year medicine in 1913, two of the four women and forty-seven of the fifty-three men served during the war.  Almost every one of the men have detailed records available online from the Australian War Memorial, charting their rank, service locations, hospitalisation for wounds and illnesses, periods of leave, medals and for seven of them, the details of their death.  The refusal to accept the enlistment of women doctors and, after late 1916, the offer of ex-officio only service with the RAMC meant that the women have no such official records of service. They received no recognition from the Australian government in the form of medals or post-war employment preference and are often missing from University Rolls of Honour and memorialisation generally.

Writing and validating their war experience therefore relies on the existence of diaries or diary letters combined with rare accounts of the organisations they worked with. The Vera Scantlebury Brown papers in the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library contain nineteen volumes of diary-letters written between February 1917 and March 1919, including her twenty-one months service at the Military Hospital, Endell Street in London. Known as the suffragette hospital, the 560 bed unit was the creation of suffragists Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson and its 180 staff almost all female. Dr Murray's post-war history of the hospital, written in part to continue the fight for universal suffrage in Britain makes not a single reference to the overseas women who served.  The service of Drs Vera Scantlebury and Rachel Champion of the University of Melbourne and Drs Eleanor Bourne, Elizabeth Hamilton-Browne and Emma Buckley of the University of Sydney were not detailed.  The hagiographic nature of Murray's history also detracts from its use as biographical source material.

Specifics of the wartime work of Dr Helen Sexton, the University of Melbourne's third woman graduate in medicine in 1892, have been sparse until very recently. Denied enlistment, she established her own military hospital at Auteuil, near Paris' racecourse from July 1915 to January 1916.  A recent discovery of her patient case notes by Dr Jacqueline Healy, Curator of the University's Medical History Museum, provides the first real insight into her work. The detail of individual soldier's wounds, injuries and illnesses provides rare information about the nature and breadth of the wartime work of all doctors.  The State Library of Adelaide holds the handwritten diary of Dr Laura Fowler Hope who served with the Scottish Women's Hospital from October 1915 to February 1916, spending most of her service in Austrian captivity.  The diary appears to have been rewritten some time later and may have lost some immediacy but gained recollected detail.  Both Vera's diary-letters and Laura's diaries are mediated by awareness of their audience and in turn their audience's sensibilities and for the researcher, what is left unsaid is always lurking.  The contextual background of some women doctors' service in countries like Montenegro, Serbia and Galicia for example is far less well-known and documented in Australia than is that of the Western Front.  The fluidity of the Eastern front and the movement of armies and peoples also make it problematical to trace and follow the movement of the women doctors who served in Eastern Europe.  Dr Agnes Bennett's diaries from her time in command of a Scottish Women's Army field hospital with the Third Serbian Army at Lake Ostrovo, resides in New Zealand's National Library in New Zealand.  The dozens of photos she took, starkly illustrate the understatement of her diary writings and the isolation of their work.

Finally, a letter in Dr Agnes Bennett's file from Lieutenant Colonel JJ Easton written on 28 June 1915 sums up the official status of the records of women doctors.  He wrote 'I am unable to trace any correspondence regarding her appointment or the nature of the duties she is engaged in'.

Dr Heather Sheard (BComm, GradDipEd, GradDepEdAdmin, MA, PhD), was a secondary school teacher and assistant principal before retiring and completing a master's thesis on the history of Victoria's maternal and child health services, subsequently published as All the Little Children: The Story of Victoria's Baby Health Centres (2007). Her PhD thesis, completed in 2013, was a biography of Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown. Read about Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown and Female Leadership in a First World War Military Hospital in Dr Sheard's paper.