Women Doctors in War

Women Doctors in War

Women Doctors in War

Women Doctors in War


In their efforts to utilize their medical skills and training in the service of their country, women physicians fought not one but two male-dominated professional hierarchies: the medical and the military establishments. In the process, they also contended with powerful social pressures and constraints.

Throughout Women Doctors in War, the authors focus on the medical careers, aspirations, and struggles of individual women, using personal stories to illustrate the unique professional and personal challenges female military physicians have faced.

Military and medical historians and scholars in women's studies will discover a wealth of new information in Women Doctors in War.


Women have been practicing the healing arts since the earliest times. Aboriginal peoples everywhere recognized women’s skills as healers, obstetricians, and bonesetters. Similarly, wounds sustained in battle have been treated by women throughout history. In seventeenthcentury North America, a Mrs. Allyn served as an army surgeon during King Philip’s War, receiving twenty pounds for her services. By the time of the American Revolution, however, it was more common for women to work as nurses under the authority of male physicians. Gen. George Washington recognized the need for nurses and instituted procedures by which they were to be hired and paid.

Although nursing did not emerge as a profession in the United States until after the Civil War, physicians began organizing themselves as a profession in the early nineteenth century. They established schools of instruction that dispensed medical degrees to successful graduates and formed professional associations that set agreed-upon standards of care and conduct. Just as women were barred from attending the majority of colleges in the United States, they were automatically excluded from attending medical schools, until Elizabeth Blackwell broke that barrier by gaining admission to Geneva Medical College and then graduating with her MD in 1849.

Twelve years later, at the start of the American Civil War, there were 250 women physicians in the United States and no professionally trained nurses. Most people still believed that women had no business being doctors and that no true lady would want to expose herself to the sights, sounds, and smells of a stranger’s sickbed. As nurturers, women were expected to nurse beloved family members, but gently bred ladies did not nurse strangers for pay.

Similarly, male physicians and soldiers anticipated that women would have nothing to do with the war. Good women were expected to stay safely at home and leave the fighting to the men. Initially, even women who volunteered their services as nurses were turned away; military men believed that women were too physically and emotionally weak to withstand the brutalities of war—the horrific wounds and agonized screams of the operating tent and the grim . . .

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