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Chapter Two NECESSITY’S HANDMAIDENS The Army’s Women Contract Surgeons of World War I W hen the young Julia Stimson graduated from Vassar College in 1901, she thought she might like to become a doctor. Testing the waters, she took graduate courses in biology and medical drawing at Columbia University and worked part-time as a medical illustrator and slide colorist at Cornell University Medical Center. Stimson’s parents did not want her to become a physician, however, believing it was not a suitable occupation for well-bred young women. They managed to dissuade their daughter from pursuing her first choice, but in 1904 she entered nurses’ training at New York Hospital. Julia Stimson’s situation was not unique. Young women drawn to a career as a physician faced a discouraging environment from the turn of the century through 1917, the year the United States declared war on the European Central Powers. Newly instituted accreditation standards reduced the number of medical schools, and the cost of tuition rose. At the same time, the growing trend toward professionalization meant that young men and women had a greater number of career choices than ever before, and the numbers of both male and female students applying to medical schools declined significantly. For young women, the nursing profession represented an appealing alternative to the longer road to a medical degree. Nursing had come to be seen as an acceptable profession for a young woman, and the number of professionally trained nurses rose from fifteen thousand in 1880 to more than two hundred thousand by 1917. In comparison, there were only six thousand women doctors in the United States by 1910, representing approximately 6 percent of the physicians in the country. By 1917 these figures for women doctors had begun a slow and steady decline that would not reverse itself until World War II twenty-five years in the future. While nurses emerged as respected professionals, women doctors remained enigmas, treated by much of society and a significant portion of the medical profession as if they had stepped out of their assigned place. Reflecting the status of nurses in American society, the army accepted Women Contract Surgeons in World War I 33 nurses as official, uniformed members of the service in 1901 with the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps. The Navy followed suit in 1908. When the United States declared war in 1917, both military nurse corps grew dramatically , and the services quickly sent nurses overseas. One of these was army nurse Julia Stimson. Although army and navy nurses served without benefit of commissioned rank and thus had little real authority, the military health-care system could not function without them, and their official place in their respective services was secure. At the end of the war, Julia Stimson was appointed superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, and army nurses were granted quasi-commissions referred to as “relative rank.” There was no comparable place for women doctors, however. Although within the first few months of war the military was in desperate need of doctors, and hundreds of women physicians were anxious to volunteer their services, the army and navy refused to commission them. Needs Will Out Anticipating the war in 1916, Congress passed legislation expanding the Army Medical Corps, which was comprised of commissioned physicians . At that time all military personnel, officer and enlisted, were male, a fact taken for granted by the authors of the 1916 act, who wrote, “Such citizens as upon examination prescribed by the President shall be found physically, mentally and morally qualified to hold such commissions,” could be appointed to temporary commissions in the Medical Corps. The gender of the “citizens” in question was not specified. The army Surgeon General’s Office made the same assumption when, after the United States declared war, officials sent registration forms to every physician in the country, regardless of gender, asking if he or she would be willing to serve. Women physicians who filled out the forms and returned them to Washington, however, received letters declining their services. Within months, women physicians petitioned the War Department challenging the army’s automatic rejection of their services. In response, acting Judge Advocate General S. T. Ansell stated in an August 1917 opinion that the 1916 legislation should be interpreted in light of the intent of its authors , who in using the term “citizens” had obviously meant male citizens. As precedent, he cited a decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court which said that although state...


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