WWI Centennial
“Battalion of Life”: American Women’s Hospitals and the First World War

“Battalion of Life”: American Women’s Hospitals and the First World War

Shortly after the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton of Virginia published an article describing the work of Scottish Women’s Hospitals, a medical unit staffed entirely by female physicians who were caring for wounded servicemen among the Allied nations. Morton hoped this agency would serve as a model for treatment of American soldiers overseas. Like the infamous “Battalion of Death” — an all-female unit of Russian women soldiers created after the February revolution to shame men into enlisting — the medical women of Europe were “making a stand no less soldierly and grim against the ghastly specters of injury, disease, ravage and starvation which throng upon the heels of war.”

Morton appealed to the American public for funds to support a “Battalion of Life” — the American Women’s Hospitals. This unit would be staffed by American women physicians, who felt it was their patriotic duty to ensure that American soldiers were “cared for in American hospitals, under the Stars and Stripes.”1Two women in full-length coats and hats standing, one looking at the camera and the other at the other woman.

Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton and Anne Morgan, ca. 1915-1920. (Bain News Service/US Library of Congress)

Morton was not only concerned with delivering care to the American Expeditionary Forces. She and her colleagues also wanted to use war service to advance the status of women physicians in the United States. The First World War came at a critical period for America’s medical women. By the 1910s, the number of female physicians in the United States had grown from a mere handful in the early nineteenth century to 9,000 practitioners, or roughly 5-6% of the medical profession. In 1915, the American Medical Association, which had barred women from membership since its founding in 1848, finally admitted its first woman delegate. When the United States entered the war in 1917, women doctors saw a perfect opportunity to advance their status in the male-dominated medical profession.2Unfortunately, male physicians were not willing to accept women as equal participants in the war effort. The Owen-Dyer Bill, passed by Congress in July 1918, gave members of the all-male medical corps the same rank as other military officers. Congress refused to allow women physicians in the medical corps, claiming that since most women physicians cared for children and female patients, they were unsuited for military medicine.

The military grudgingly offered women physicians positions as contract surgeons — civilian consultants — without the benefits of military rank, pay, or status. For some women physicians, this was sufficient: 2,200 out of the more than 6,000 women physicians in the country registered with the Volunteer Medical Service Corps to serve “on call” for war relief work. Nationwide, 108 women served as contract surgeons for the U.S. Army. 3Other women physicians considered contract service unappealing since it meant giving up their practices in the states with no rank or promotion while in service, no bonuses or pensions when they returned, and if injured, no disability compensation for themselves or their dependents. As an alternative, some women physicians decided to create their own all-female medical units overseas. This was a continuation of earlier professional strategies of separatism that women physicians had used when excluded from full participation in male organizations.4Poster showing a woman with her head in her hands with a child huddled at her feet, both sitting in the remains of a bombed building. The text reads: Tired of giving? You don’t know what it is to be tired. Give and help us help them! $200,000 for the American Women’s Hospitals.

Fundraising Poster for American Women’s Hospitals, ca. 1917. (Ball State University, University Libraries Archives and Special Collections)

In 1917, the war committee of the Medical Women’s National Association (later renamed the American Medical Women’s Association) established the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH) to provide medical care to both the military and civilians in war-torn areas of allied countries. These efforts soon ran into difficulty with the American Red Cross, which was in charge of approving all nonmilitary medical assistance overseas.

The American Red Cross initially refused to support AWH because “the ideals of the American medical woman’s organization were parallel to those of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” That is, both groups supported women’s suffrage and aimed to use wartime medical service to advance the cause of women’s political equality. Morton assured the Red Cross that she and her colleagues were “‘not interested in any [feminist] propaganda; that we stood purely for war-service for the relief of suffering.’”5In February 1918, the Red Cross finally allowed the AWH to set up its first hospital in Luzancy, France, which gave women physicians the opportunity to provide medical care to civilians and members of the military without having to place themselves under the direct authority of men from either the U.S. or French armed forces.6 The AWH also agreed to provide medical and surgical services for the communities being aided by the American Committee for Devastated France (ACDF), a civilian relief organization created by Anne Murray Dike and Ann Morgan, the youngest daughter of financier J. Pierpont Morgan.7In a letter to her mother, Anne Morgan described the horrendous conditions of the region: “The sanitary conditions are beyond words as there are still so many bodies of men and horses that are barely below the surface of the ground.” Morgan also described the brave efforts of the AWH physicians who struggled to offer basic medical care under such stressful circumstances:

[gblockquote]The other day our doctor … had a hurry call for a baby … at St. Paul [aux Bois], one of our most destroyed villages; there are about three hundred people back and practically not a house standing; the baby was born in a trench with a corrugated roof, five people living together and no light unless one left the door open.8[/gblockquote]

The physicians and staff remained in France long after the Armistice and received countless letters of thanks from local residents. One French woman described the “lady doctors” as “Angels of France” who miraculously delivered her and the residents of the village from a deadly typhoid epidemic.9 In April 1919, the physicians, nurses, and ambulance drivers of the hospital in Luzancy received honorary French citizenship and the Medaille de Reconnaissance from the French government, an award equivalent to the Legion of Honor.10Women physicians had a harder time advancing their status within the medical profession stateside. As Kimberly Jensen observes, although the organization allowed medical women to make a contribution to the effort commensurate with their training, it did so in a “safe” way by creating all-female units and working primarily on behalf of women and children.11 Although this strategy earned medical women international recognition, it also reinforced a separate sphere for women in medicine.

Nevertheless, medical women had laid the groundwork for the next global conflict. At the outset of the Second World War, women physicians once again tried to win commissions for medical women in the Army Medical Reserves. This time they were successful. American Medical Women’s Association president Emily Dunning Barringer argued, “vital accomplishment and not sex should be the measuring rod” of whether medical women were fit for military service.12Barringer lobbied Congress and won the support of Senator John Jackson Sparkman from Alabama, who sponsored a bill on their behalf. In April 1943, President Roosevelt signed the Sparkman Act into law, which finally allowed women physicians to receive commissions in the U.S. Armed forces. Although full equality still lay in the future, medical women’s military service in wartime paved the way for future professional advances for women in medicine.


  1. Rosalie Slaughter Morton, “Battalion of Life,” Forum (April 1918), 472. Return to text.
  2. Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 78-79. Return to text.
  3. Mercedes Graf, “With High Hopes: Women Contract Surgeons in World War I,” Minerva: Women & War 20, no. 2 (2002): 19. Return to text.
  4. Ellen More, Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 42-69. Return to text.
  5. Quoted in Ellen More, “‘A Certain Restless Ambition’: Women Physicians and World War I,” American Quarterly 41, no. 4 (1989): 647-50. Return to text.
  6. Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva, 107-110. Return to text.
  7. More, “A Certain Restless Ambition,” 652. Return to text.
  8. Anne Morgan to Frances Tracy Morgan Blérancourt, 30 April 1919, Online exhibit, “Anne Morgan’s War: Rebuilding Devastated France, 1917–1924,” Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY, accessed October 19, 2018.Return to text.
  9. Helen Douglas, “The Wonder Work in France of American Women Doctors,” Sunday Oregonian, March 2, 1919, 2. Return to text.
  10. American Medical Women Decorated by the French Government” American Women’s Hospital Bulletin 1, no. 3 (1919): 7 Return to text.
  11. Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva, 169-70. Return to text.
  12. Judith Bellafaire and Mercedes Herrera Graf, Women Doctors in War (Fort Worth, TX: Texas A&M University Press), 97. Return to text.

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.