Celebrating the trailblazing female doctors and scientists of World War I

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

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.

Martha Whiteley

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.

Isobel Emslie

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.

A Lab of One's Own

Are you searching for knowledge?

Very Short Introduction - KnowledgeThen Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series has the answer!

The Very Short Introduction (VSI) series reaches a significant milestone this month with the publication of the its aptly named 400th title, Knowledge by Jennifer Nagel. This VSI will address classic questions such as: What is knowledge? How does it differ from mere belief? Do you need to be able to justify a claim in order to count as knowing it? How can we know that the outer world is real and not a dream?

In a small, pocket-sized format, Very Short Introductions combine key facts with authoritative analysis and an exploration of big ideas. They provide engaging and readable introductions across hundreds of topics. Written by expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about.

Follow the history and evolution of this remarkable series with these infographics:



The importance of debate in active learning and the development of critical thinking skills

Daniel Baldino, Head of the Politics and International Relations Discipline, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, discusses why the use of a debate style framework in undergraduate political textbooks is so important.

The structure of Australian Foreign Policy, OUP ANZ, Oxford, 9780195525632Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates is based around a deliberate pedagogical design that aims to encourage critical thinking, reflective learning and self-assessment. Debate has long been considered central to intellectual development and effective communication. As Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed, ‘The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.’

Such an approach was relatively straightforward. For example, two separate authors each contributed to a specific chapter topic, theme or controversy. The text is then presented in debate style presentation, with one author on each side of an issue. For example, the utility of the UN, to what extent Australia is a climate change laggard or the merits of Australia’s approach to alliance management with the US.

It should be highlighted that although a calculated debate format was used, sometimes overlapping and interrelated but divergent or disagreeing approaches to a single issue are presented rather than two diametrically opposed standpoints. Rather than pressing for a polemical discourse, students are encouraged to appreciate numerous nuances and varying degrees of connection as well as vivid notes of distinction.

For most university students, reading a textbook is a slightly intimidating or disconcerting experience. They are handed a chapter, often written by some distinguished scholar or senior professor who has been doing this sort of thing for decades, and then asked by tutors and lecturers to argue over it. If this is the first time they have encountered a thorny topic or multi-layered issue, how can they lucidly disagree with the expert author? Worse, as students go through their studies and into graduate and higher levels, they quickly find that other just as knowledgeable experts will have different views and varying assumptions about the same topics they read about. Why then did the textbook present it as a straight forward or settled point?

So this book takes a different approach. It embraces the value of debate alongside constructing and defending an argument as a valuable scholarly activity. Academic debate remains a robust educational tool to test ideas and to facilitate both a depth and breadth of study. It can help us understand, evaluate, disentangle and formulate new and alternative ideas about a range of contested and controversial topics, in a wide range of areas including foreign policy, in a meaningful and rational way. The debate format itself was intended to help students become independent thinkers and problem-solvers while appreciating the varied assessments, perspectives and assumptions that other scholars and policymakers might bring to a range of real-world and critical modern-day political challenges.

At the same time, the task of articulating ideas, and effectively defending or even adapting one’s own position, will demand critical thinking, reflection, accurate research, valid evidence and high-level analysis. Unfortunately, it is often too easy to dismiss the contested nature of problems or discount (or even dismiss) the complexity of facts, methods of interpretation and the existence of ‘shades of grey’.

Notably, always trying to be ‘balanced’ can simply lead to the spread of informational bias, misperception and imprecise reporting. So students must be wary of the trappings of false equivalence —the presentation of opposing arguments as equal, when one side has a wealth of evidence, analysis and logic while the other side of the argument is substantially weaker. Too often—with climate change ‘denial discourse’ being an obvious example—a variety of public debate formats in the media tend to avoid trying to establish genuine rigour, allow lazy logic to go unchallenged and have no real merit as vehicles for discovery and good reasoning. In short, not all arguments are equal. A badly designed debate obscures this, suggesting equivalence between the two sides; good debating practice on the other hand can help us recognise which side has the stronger argument and why.

Overall, students should derive long-term benefits from their time in the classroom and be encouraged to think critically and develop problem-solving skills through creative tasks and group work. But rather than supply students with static facts, the framework of Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates hopes to serve them better by teaching them how to define a problem, how to decide what they need to solve it, how to find and evaluate new information, how to recognise limitations and strengths of arguments, and how to be prepared to both change or adapt as well as justify their opinions based on new pieces of evidence. As facilitators hoping to motivate students to engage in learning situations and to assist reflecting on particular learning experiences, the authors all believed strongly that students continue to need skills in, and an attitudinal commitment to, high-quality and active debate points in their learning situations.