While relatively few in number, female scientists and doctors made a big impact during World War I. From testing mustard gas on their own skin to running field hospitals in the face of “indescribable filth and vermin, evil smells, no rations, no lights, a hospital full of ill and dying men”, they revealed their skill and competence in the most difficult conditions.
However, these women have largely been ignored in historical accounts, which have tended to focus on the experience of wartime manual workers, who were far more numerous and left behind more readily accessible evidence.
A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War explores the lives of some of the extraordinary women who helped pave the way for the female science and medical professionals of today.
Caroline Haslett was just one among many thousands of young women whose lives were transformed by the First World War. Through their struggles, setbacks, and successes, they collectively influenced future generations. Her experiences illustrate how the War permanently altered scientific, medical, and technological prospects for women. A suffragette with a weak school record, she became an eminent international consultant on the domestic uses of electricity, educational reform, and industrial careers for women. She used her influence to alter the scientific careers of countless schoolgirls all over the world.
Haslett was judged a lost cause by her teachers because she never could learn how to sew a buttonhole. As a teenager, she left her Sussex village for London and—to the alarm of her strict Protestant parents—joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes. When the War started, she was working as a clerk in a boiler factory, but during the next four years she was repeatedly promoted to replace men who had left to fight. By 1918, she was running the London office, visiting customers such as the War Office to discuss contracts, and astonishing staid civil servants with her expertise in a man’s domain. After being trained as an engineer by her enlightened employers, in 1919—still in her early twenties—Haslett began managing the newly founded Women’s Engineering Society. She was determined to consolidate and expand still further the opportunities for women that had recently opened up. Electric technology—dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines—would, she believed, free women of drudgery, liberating them to lead a higher form of life. She envisaged “a new world of mechanics, of the application of scientific methods to daily tasks . . . a great opportunity for women to free themselves from the shackles of the past and to enter into a new heritage made possible by the gifts of nature which Science has opened up to us.”
At the end of the War, three million women were working in industry. Like Haslett, some of them had the advantages of good grammar and the right sort of accent, but many were relatively uneducated—domestic servants, barmaids, and shop assistants who had seized the opportunity to escape from their menial occupations.
The chemist Martha Whiteley graduated with a University of London degree when she was twenty-four, but, lacking either rich parents or a husband to support her, she spent the next eleven years teaching. Although no hard evidence survives of her ‘Dear Diary’ feelings about following this route, her frustration is suggested by the fact that for several years she was carrying out scientific research as well as working to earn her living. In 1903, she joined the staff at Imperial College London.
When the male lecturers went away during the War, Whiteley was put in charge of the experimental trenches and the temporary workshop installed just outside the main chemistry laboratory. Putting on one side her research into synthesizing barbiturates and other drugs, she shifted to examining gases. And there was only one way for her group to do that effectively: by testing the gases on themselves. Although they did not share the fate of other wartime chemists, who died through such self-experimentation, they went through some unpleasant experiences. Over thirty years later, in a lecture designed to inspire female students, Whiteley described how she had examined the first sample of mustard gas to be brought back to London. ‘I naturally tested this property by applying a tiny smear to my arm and for nearly three months suffered great discomfort from the widespread open wound it caused in the bend of the elbow, and of which I still carry the scar.’
Whiteley received several tributes for her wartime research. She must have felt gratified to have an explosive named after her—DW for Dr Whiteley—and also proud to be awarded an OBE. More unusually, she was celebrated in the press as ‘the woman who makes the Germans weep’ because of her research into tear gas.
Living and dying on the edge of danger, female doctors – including many from Australia – had an enormous impact on the eastern front and its local populations. Most obviously, they rapidly acquired the surgical expertise needed for treating wounded soldiers, and countless affidavits testify to their patients’ appreciation. In addition, they ran maternity units, cared for refugees, researched into infectious diseases, and introduced preventive health programs.
In the summer of 1918, Dr Isobel Emslie successfully applied to become the commanding officer of a hospital funded by American donations and based in Ostrovo, ninety miles west of Salonika. ‘Just fancy me a C.O. at my tender years,’ she wrote proudly to her mother; ‘I should have been 20 years older & worn hob-nailed boots & flannel.’…
During the last four years, all the women had witnessed appalling devastation and misery, but nothing matched what they encountered now. As their wheels spun in axle-deep mud, they were passed by Bulgarian refugees and bewildered Serbian soldiers plodding along between piles of discarded ammunition. Never again could Emslie see a jay without shuddering to remember the birds pecking at the decaying corpses of donkeys and horses. On the fifth day, as the snow swirled around them, they knew from the stench that they had arrived. Priests mumbled the last rites as they wandered among the hundreds of injured soldiers lying on a stone floor, still in their uniforms, swarming with maggots and lice. Patients wailed continuously as surgeons operated without anaesthetics on a deal trestle table; Emslie never forgot ‘the floor swimming in blood . . . the pails crammed with arms and legs and black with flies’.
Sanitation was of paramount importance. It had become a standard joke that whenever the Brits got together in Serbia, their conversation began with lice and ended with latrines. The women immediately installed incinerators, washed the woodwork with paraffin, cleaned up the water system, and began peeling off the men’s ancient, blood-soaked bandages. Even after forcing the slightly less sick to leave, they had 450 patients suffering from wounds, dysentery, and the virulent Spanish flu that killed so many healthy young men. The housekeeper reported that Emslie looks such a young C.O., but she is most capable, and has made wonderful strides to bring order out of a colossal chaos. . . . [W]e had to tackle a Herculean task to battle with indescribable filth and vermin, evil smells, no rations, no lights, a hospital full of ill and dying men, and everyone tired out.
On top of converting an old barracks into a clean hospital, she spent much of her time in bureaucratic nagging to ensure their food supplies. And as well as all that, she found herself responsible for local civilians in villages up to fifty miles away. Most Serbian doctors were either dead from typhus, recuperating in the south of France, or opening lucrative practices in Belgrade. Constantly busy, the women had little time to ruminate on the horror. Three weeks after they arrived, the Armistice was declared, but they hardly noticed it. For them, the day’s exciting news was that Rose West switched on the hospital’s new electricity system.
A Lab of One’s Own Science and Suffrage in the First World War by Patricia Fara is available from OUP Australia.