On Saturday, 21 September, 2019, the museum curator gave a presentation in Hobart to a meeting of COMA (Collection of Medical Artefacts). The presentation looked at the way women doctors from Australia became involved with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, and served on the frontlines during World War I.

A few weeks after the outbreak of WWI, a small article appeared in many newspapers around the country. In it, Colonel Ryan, principal medical officer for the army, was still in the process of looking into requirements for war nurses. He’d already received 500 applications for war nurses to be attached to field ambulances, but was fairly certain nurses wouldn’t be deployed in this capacity.

The role of the field ambulances was to gather the wounded, administer life-saving support as required, and assist them to move along the casualty evacuation chain. The frontlines were no place for women, and it was impossible for Ryan to imagine any circumstance under which a woman would be deployed to the front. Nursing in a base hospital, significantly removed from the battle front was another matter, and would definitely be considered as part of the overall planning. And, it seems, rather than sending nurses to the front, a group of soldiers were given two weeks of nursing training instead.

So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when women doctors approached the Australian Army Medical Corps to volunteer, they were summarily dismissed. It also probably comes as no surprise that when Scottish obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Elsie Inglis approached the British War Office with the offer of a fully staffed, outfitted and funded hospital unit, the War Office declined, and, famously told her the best contribution she could make to the war effort was to go home and sit still. Now we may never know the truth of that comment. The story’s been told so many times it’s now morphed into folklore, which admittedly develops a truth of its own. But, it’s a compelling part of the story, because verbatim or not, it underscores general attitudes to women, and particularly professional women, during this era.

In 1914, the role of women in medicine could be accurately described as precarious. Throughout the western world, many universities still wouldn’t enrol women as medical students, although that was no longer the case in Australia. Many hospitals still wouldn’t appoint them, even in Australia. Women doctors were sort of tolerated but largely on the proviso they confined themselves to women’s and children’s health. It was a kind of “stay in your lane” mentality, as we might call it today, that seemed to prevail. Medical women were expected to establish and maintain their professional practice within a completely separate sphere to medical men.

But, the surge in women’s education and their entry to the professions coincided with a global movement for women’s suffrage. And that probably wasn’t an accident of timing. Although in Australia suffrage had been achieved over a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, women in the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world, were still fighting that fight.

The prominent UK organisations in that fight were the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, with Millicent Fawcett in the lead, and the Women’s Social and Political Union, headed up by Emmeline Pankhurst, and later her daughter Christabel, and the WSPU was considered the more combative of the two, working to an almost militaristic campaign slogan of “deeds not words”. They were known for civil disobedience and violent forms of protest.

Elsie Inglis was a member of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which came under the general banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The National Union was committed to more peaceful protest and activism, conducted in both a non-violent and legal way. But, war kind of brought these two branches of the suffrage movement back to a point of agreement, as they both decided to halt the campaign and concentrate on supporting the war effort. Predictably, the two organisations adopted completely different approaches to that support. And, it’s here we’ll leave the WSPU as we follow the trail marked out by the National Union.

Quoting from the official history of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, we’re told that:

As Dr Elsie Inglis sat in the offices of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies, she saw in imagination the army of women, skilled and unskilled, who only needed organizing to be brought into line with the most efficient service the nation knew.

Inglis had initially imagined that the Federation could support and supplement the work of the Red Cross. At this particular Federation meeting, the ante kept getting upped as the idea spread around the room, being added to in increments until Inglis resolved to develop hospitals staffed entirely by women and, if those hospitals weren’t required by the home forces, then they will offer their services abroad. As it stood, the Scottish Federation had something in the vicinity of £115 at their disposal, and Inglis had worked and reworked the numbers, arriving at a figure of £1000 to equip and pay the salaries of one 100 bed hospital unit. Each unit would consist of four doctors, ten trained nurses, six dressers, two cooks, an administrator and a clerk. The Scottish Federation appealed to the National Union, who approved the scheme, along with a proposal to “crowd source” the necessary funding. Simultaneous appeals were made in Scotland, England, India, Australia, Canada and America. One meeting in Calcutta alone is reported to have secured £13,000. The women of the empire, and indeed beyond the empire, threw their support, both physically and financially, behind the development of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. By war’s end, approximately £450,000 had flowed through their books.

And, with the women’s offer rejected by the British War Office, they turned their attention to the Allies. France tentatively accepted, subject to an examination of the offer by the British Red Cross. The Serbians, however, seemed to have no reservations and, on 8 November 1914, the Scottish Federation received a telegram from their envoy, Dr Robert Seton-Watson, saying simply “Serbian Government gratefully accepts expedition”. By 19 November, a reconnaissance team sent to Calais found themselves seconded into a typhoid epidemic which effectively turned them into the first hospital unit of the SWH. And in January 1915, the second unit was deployed to Serbia, right into the heart of the country, to take part in the “…“long-drawn-out-battle” against wounds and fever and death”. The women doctors had joined the war.

In May 1915, Dr Mary de Garis wrote to the Commonwealth Military Forces with an offer to enlist and to work in either Australia or abroad.  Predictably, her offer was rejected. This was a common story for many of the 129 women doctors listed in the 1915 Butterworth’s Medical Directory. Having faced down social hostility to study medicine, having graduated, gained extensive clinical experience and forged medical careers against the odds, all the women who offered their medical expertise to the defence forces were rejected. The Australian Army accepted women as nurses, masseurs and ward assistants, but it did not, and would not, accept women doctors.


De Garis graduated in 1905 from Melbourne University, and took up a 12 month residency at the Melbourne Hospital, followed by nine months at the Women’s Hospital. During her residency years, she continued to study and, in 1907, became the second woman in Australia to gain her MD. Despite her impressive qualifications, and glowing references, ongoing work was difficult to secure and de Garis looked to regional NSW for a position. Ruth Lee’s book Woman War Doctor, suggests de Garis fitted comfortably into the outback lifestyle. A month before the war broke she became engaged to a local grazier. She had no intention of giving up medicine after marriage, and he had no expectation that she would. Her fiancé, Colin Thomson, held off enlisting until January 1915, departing for Alexandria in May 1915. His departure coincided with her writing to the Commonwealth Military Forces. Following this rejection, she took up her pen again, writing to her English friend, Dr Mabel Hardie, who was serving with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Tunisia. While de Garis was contemplating her future, and still showing a “…determination to accept war work if offered”, Thomson had been thrust into, and miraculously survived, the battle for Gallipoli, and in early 1916 he was redeployed to France, with the British Expeditionary Forces.

This prompted De Garis to travel to England to be nearer to Thomson. She arrived in July 1916. The anxiety of being so far from him had taken a toll on her, and relocating had helped her “…feel better in body and mind” she wrote in a letter to her sister. But, despite the geographic closeness, her anxiety began to peak again as the months passed and she heard nothing from him until receiving a letter from the AIF, dated 13 September, informing her of his death at Pozieres in August.

Thomson’s presence at the charge on Pozieres has been captured, and his death immortalised, by Australia’s official war correspondent and historian, Charles Bean. According to Bean, “Thomson undertook a leading part in the direction until he collapsed through loss of blood”.

Deep mourning naturally followed. But, her commitment to war work never wavered. By December 1916, de Garis had obtained a position with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, serving in what was known as the America Unit.

De Garis was joined by at least six other Australian women doctors: Agnes Bennett, Lilian Cooper, Grace Cordingley, Elsie Dalyell, Laura Fowler and Laura Forster. Forster worked with both the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the Millicent Fawcett Hospital Units, both organisations having their origins in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. And, while only naming a few, other women doctors also sought war medicine. Helen Sexton financed and formed her own hospital in France, under the command of the French Army. Eleanor Bourne served at the Endell Street Military Hospital, which had arisen out of the Women’s Hospital Corps established by Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray in August 1914. If these women’s names aren’t familiar to you, they should be, it’s a much abbreviated but incredibly impressive list of medical women pioneers, most of them Australian.

It’s difficult to know precisely what motivated each of these women to go to the front. There was plenty of work at home, much less competition for positions, and a broader acceptance of women doctors. In fact, Australia, like England, America and presumably other countries caught up in the war, actively recruited women as medical students to help fill the very real void created by men being absorbed into the war machine. Undoubtedly, many of these women saw this as their patriotic duty, in much the same way as the tens of thousands of Australian men who also volunteered their services. Some perhaps, sought the adventure. War has often been romanticised, and for some women, the opportunity to travel to foreign lands and perform work generally viewed as heroic would have been almost irresistible. Additionally, because of the general position of women only being given access to medicine involving women and children, it would have been an incredible opportunity to diversify practice into other interest areas. And, for others, perhaps they saw the way their contributions to the war effort could translate into civilian life and provide tangible proof of the value of medical women. In the UK that could also have been used to support claims for suffrage and here, in Australia, to help develop more than a niche role for women within the medical profession.

The work performed by the SWH is comparable with any military medical unit. Records show they were working at the front and dealing with amputations, wound repair, shrapnel removal, skin grafts, compound fracture repairs, and the usual diseases such as typhoid and malaria. A full page spread in the Sydney Mail of 23 January 1918 declared, “[n]o individual medical unit in this war has accomplished more than the Scottish Women’s Hospitals”. And, these women weren’t unknown to the public. This article wasn’t a one-off. The women’s exploits appeared, if not exactly regularly, at least in wide syndication throughout Australian newspapers.

In June 1915, the 2nd Serbian unit, in transit to Salonika via Malta, was requisitioned by the Governor of Malta to assist in treating the streams of wounded coming from the fighting on the Dardanelles. This simple act inserts them directly into the ANZAC narrative, probably the most powerful marker of Australian identity, and yet, here we are, over a century later, and few if any have heard of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and even less, the involvement of Australian women doctors.

The Australian women doctors who joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an important part of Australian history. We know, for example, that Mary de Garis saw her involvement as an expression of her patriotism, whatever other motivations she may have had. This is very much the same reasoning as many men gave for joining the war effort. We know she offered her professional services to the Australian military and was rejected, and in that rejection, was determined to find another way to provide life-saving service to those who needed it. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals offered distinct opportunities for war-time service for many Australian women. We also know that de Garis was rewarded with military honours by the Serbian government, for the way she commanded a civilian evacuation ahead of the retreating Serbian Army. And, de Garis isn’t the only Australian woman doctor to receive foreign military honours during WWI. Bravery and heroism abound.

How wonderful it would be to see those women, and their contributions, recognised by a wider audience.