Doctor or Doctress?

Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians

The American Women’s Hospitals in World War I France: "Across Battlefields and into Villages"

Explore how American Women’s Hospitals played a vital role in providing medical care to civilians in WWI-era France

The modern weapons and tactics of World War I produced unprecedented conflict and carnage in Europe. France suffered devastating effects of the war being fought on its soil, including a severe humanitarian crisis resulting from the bombardment of villages near the constantly-moving front lines. The conditions of poor, rural villages already suffering from malnutrition and disease were exacerbated by the war. Local (male) village doctors were away fighting at the front, leaving behind a civilian population even more vulnerable to illness and epidemics. Women physicians were not permitted by the Allied countries to serve as officers in the military medical corps, but there was a desperate need for doctors in the wake of World War I. The desire to advance in the medical profession and to relieve those suffering in post-war conditions prompted American women physicians to establish the first American Women’s Hospital in France in 1918.


When they arrived in France, the doctors of American Women's Hospitals (AWH) found a ravaged countryside and villagers ailing from longstanding health problems made worse by wartime conditions. The first hospital established by the AWH in July 1918 was in Neufmotiers, a small village about twenty miles southeast of Paris. In September of 1918, the hospital was moved to Luzancy so that it was closer to the devastated areas and where the doctors handled dysentery, typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia as well as performing long overdue surgeries. The doctors of AWH did their medical work under extremely difficult circumstances: scarcity of equipment, improvised spaces, poor transportation, and constant uncertainty and insecurity because the front line of battle was always moving back and forth throughout the countryside. The women physicians were welcomed and appreciated by local villagers, and purposefully cultivated good relations with local French officials.

The armistice that ended the war in Western Europe on November 11, 1918, did not change conditions in the areas devastated by the war. The doctors of AWH believed that the end of war did not mean the end of their services. People who had experienced the deprivations and destruction of war continued to suffer from its effects long after the fighting had ended: local violence, hunger, injuries, communicable diseases, forced migration, and inadequate housing. Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy, the chair of AWH, stated that the aftermath of war was in fact “worse than the War in some countries.” As towns and villages were restored with a healthy population, the AWH moved on to assist in newly devastated areas.

In June of 1919, the hospital was moved to Blérancourt, a town about 75 miles north of Luzancy, as local French doctors returned to Luzancy and its surrounding areas and living conditions improved greatly. At Blérancourt, the doctors attended to preventive health care, particularly vaccinations for small pox and typhoid. The AWH initiated dispensaries over a wide area. This region was just on the edge of the Battle of the Marne, an area that saw a large number of refugees. Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's (director of the AWH hospitals) reports to the AWH describe illness and epidemics compounded by lack of food, fuel and clothing, as well as unsanitary conditions. However, the work of the AWH and its support networks helped each area recover. The pride of the hospitals were its ambulance drivers and surgeons - all women - who served the 20,000 patients over the course of a year. The French government honored Dr. Hurrell and other AWH physicians with the Medailles de Reconnaissance, awarded in recognition of those who, without military obligation, had come to the aid of the injured, disabled, refugees, or who had performed an act of exceptional dedication in the presence of the enemy during the First World War.

Essential Evidence
Use these primary sources to understand the facts of this story

Dr. Hunt’s report on AWH Hospital No. 1 in Luzancy (reports), circa December 1, 1918<blockquote class="juicy-quote">"...at dawn we would be aroused by the dull thunder of guns and flashes of light toward the northeast."</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1868/story/islandora:2241" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Dr. Hunt’s report on AWH Hospital No. 1 in Luzancy (reports), circa December 1, 1918

"...at dawn we would be aroused by the dull thunder of guns and flashes of light toward the northeast."

A Pitiful Tale of a Refugee (articles),  February 1, 1919<blockquote class="juicy-quote">"Call you it an easy thing to walk out and leave not only your beloved home and belongings, but home and belongings that were beloved by your father and his father?"</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1868/story/islandora:3111" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

A Pitiful Tale of a Refugee (articles), February 1, 1919

"Call you it an easy thing to walk out and leave not only your beloved home and belongings, but home and belongings that were beloved by your father and his father?"

Letter from Anne Dike to Dr. Hazel Bonness (correspondence),  November 12, 1919<blockquote class="juicy-quote">"[The people] have as yet, received very little support from the Government, and are therefore greatly in need of help from their Allies."</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1868/story/islandora:2215" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Letter from Anne Dike to Dr. Hazel Bonness (correspondence), November 12, 1919

"[The people] have as yet, received very little support from the Government, and are therefore greatly in need of help from their Allies."

Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's report to AWH Committee (reports),  February 22, 1919<blockquote class="juicy-quote">"[The mayor] said that [a] French doctor had met him...and asked how long those American women were to take the bread out of the French doctors’ mouths..."</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1868/story/islandora:2208" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's report to AWH Committee (reports), February 22, 1919

"[The mayor] said that [a] French doctor had met him...and asked how long those American women were to take the bread out of the French doctors’ mouths..."

Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's February report on Luzancy Hospital (reports),  February 21, 1919<blockquote class="juicy-quote">"[What this soldier said about] our hospital gave us great pleasure; he called it 'a regular home for a fellow'..."</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1868/story/islandora:2203" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Dr. M. Louise Hurrell's February report on Luzancy Hospital (reports), February 21, 1919

"[What this soldier said about] our hospital gave us great pleasure; he called it 'a regular home for a fellow'..."

Related Primary Sources

Loading JW Player...

Consider these questions

  • Teaching Guide for this story »

  • During World War I, American women still did not have the right to vote or join the military as medical officers (doctors). Why do you think the women doctors of AWH went to France during the war? Did they encounter any resistance to their presence? From whom and why?
  • What was the mission of the AWH during their time in France? How did the conditions of the villagers and their towns and the surrounding countryside complicate the job of the AWH? How did the war further complicate the health condition of French villagers? Do you think the villagers were healthy before the war?
  • What has changed for women in wartime since World War I? Are they allowed to serve in the military and if so, in what capacity?
  • How does the work of the AWH in France during World War I compare to the work that organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders do around the world today?