The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War

Australian troops in France in the first world war – and one of Australia’s women medics, possibly Dr Laura Foster. Heather Sheard

The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War

Australian troops in France in the first world war – and one of Australia’s women medics, possibly Dr Laura Foster. Heather Sheard

The War Office regrets it cannot utilise the services of women doctors – Sydney Morning Herald, May 10, 1915.

From the outbreak of the first world war until late 1916, military officialdom throughout the British Empire denied women doctors the right to enlist with the Allied medical corps. Nevertheless, more than 20 Australian women doctors acted as surgeons and medical officers in military base and field hospitals in Belgium, France, Serbia, England, Egypt, Malta and across Europe between 1914 and 1919.

Given this official discouragement, why did Australia’s women doctors want to go to war?

The possibility of professional advancement was one factor, but many women doctors were no less patriotic than their male colleagues and believed that participation was their duty.

Brought up in a milieu of anglophile culture and literature that emphasised the supremacy of the British Empire and centrality of the London metropolis, loyalty to Britain and its defence went largely unquestioned.

Nor were women doctors immune to the seductions of travel, the possibility of adventure and simply the promise of the unknown. Some anticipated the independence of moving away from family responsibilities and restrictions, especially relevant when the war was so distant. Female collegiality inspired women to join in, and helped sustain their work in times of trauma.

Although motivations differed between individuals, the overreaching desire was to alleviate what Melbourne Dr Vera Scantlebury called “inexpressible suffering”.

Women doctors responded to official discouragement by creating their own opportunities to serve. The war immediately demanded enormous medical resources and voluntary organisations stepped in to assist the official military response. Australian women immediately joined volunteer hospitals sanctioned by the British Red Cross.

Trailblazers

The first Australian woman doctor to head to the war in Belgium was Dr Laura Forster.

On the last day of August 1914, she wrote to her sister in Sydney, “I hope to start for the front this week”. Laura loved surgery and given that opportunities for practising surgery were rare for women doctors, she was probably keen to grasp the chance, joining the British Field Hospital that left Folkestone on September 4.

Their Surgeon-in-Chief wrote of the thrill of expectation and that for surgeons, war “is a veritable dissecting-room, where all the queer machinery that goes to the making of us lies open to our view”.

They sailed for Ostend on a mail paddle steamer, the Marie Henriette and Red Cross yacht, the Grace Darling. The unit had eight doctors including Laura and Dr Alice Benham, 20 nurses, numerous orderlies and drivers and six donated motor cars.

After three days of unpacking, “a perfect avalanche of wounded arrived, one hundred and seventy in all, more than we had beds for”, Laura was immersed in surgery. The operating theatre went all night and some of the “worst cases were brought — men with ghastly injuries from which the most hardened might well turn away in horror”. Soldiers mostly arrived wearing sodden uniforms caked with dirt, shrapnel wounds filled with mud, many of them septic. The hospital was evacuated under bombardment as the German army advanced in mid-October.

Isabel Ormiston. Creative Commons

Dr Isabel Ormiston from Albury had joined the Wounded Allies Relief Committee in London and set up in Ostend’s hydro-spa hotel, Le Kursaal, in late September 1914.

She was doctor-in-charge of 14 staff and a 60-bed hospital, initially planned to care for Belgian refugees but as war closed in, the hospital rapidly became a military one. Refugees had been fleeing Ostend by mail packets and fishing boats for Dover since the middle of August. Ormiston could see refugee families sheltering in bathing boxes that formed a temporary village along Ostend’s beachfront.

By October 15, a scrambling mass of people including Belgian and English wounded, medical personnel and refugees were leaving as German planes intermittently bombed the port.

That day, Ormiston, along with the English Matron and Belgian Dr Emile Van de Watte, remained at her post in The Kursaal as a 60,000 strong German army marched over the fine bridge that spanned the Ostend harbour.

They were working 20-hour days, immersed in surgery and patient care and it was impossible to evacuate many of the wounded. So they stayed and Ormiston would receive the Order of Leopold of Belgium, the King’s medal for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty”. Ormiston was a prisoner of the invading army until late October when all British citizens were expelled from Belgium.

Australian women also joined organisations initiated by women doctors. The two largest of these were the Women’s Hospital Corps and the famed Scottish Women’s Hospitals which established a base hospital in l'Abbaye de Royaumont north of Paris – as well as 14 mobile field hospitals.

On returning home, they resumed the tiresome and time consuming struggle for professional and public credibility and remain largely absent from the official records in both Britain and Australia.

Somewhere near Zaleshchiki, Galicia (Zalischyky in what is now Western Ukraine), is the grave of Dr Laura Forster. Exhausted by more than two years of war service she succumbed to typhoid on 11 February 1917. She was buried there in the snow with a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony and her close colleague Dr Benham wrote, “it seems very tragic dying so far away from home”.


This is a version of a paper that will be presented at The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives at the University of Newcastle this month. Details here.


See also:
1916: how the events of the first world war shifted global history
Gargoyles and silence: ‘our story’ at the Australian War Memorial