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Women at War: Female Physicians’ Work During World War I

Over one hundred years ago, the first world war was fought; and from it, history was made. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary catapulted allies into forming two sides: the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan and the United States). The war saw the advent of modern warfare, the downfall of empires, and over 8 million deaths. World War I shaped not only political history, but also medical history. The invention of anesthetic and antiseptic wound care are some of the notable innovations of WWI; female physicians also took on more prominent roles during the war effort. Two of said physicians, Dr. Anna Von Sholly and Dr. Dolores Pinero, are prime examples of the visibility gained as people who fought to support their countries through healthcare.

Dr. Anna Von Sholly, alongside a group of healthcare workers, was denied by the U.S. government to offer their services on the battlefield. The French military, however, welcomed their help, and Dr. Von Sholly began her work under the Service de Santé. Dr. Von Sholly was stationed at a hospital in the Chateau Ognon at Senlis, where the hospital was often under fire. Within the 36 hours of the American female physicians joining the French doctors, after facing ridicule and laughter, Dr. Von Sholly, with her fellow doctors, treated 650 cases. For her bravery, Dr. Von Sholly was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Dr. Von Sholly graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1902 and continued an illustrious career in medicine, including becoming a fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine and a consultant to Bellevue Hospital, before passing away in 1996.

Dr. Dolores Pinero was among the first Puerto American women to achieve a medical degree in the U.S. and the first to serve as a contact surgeon to the U.S. Army. Similar to Dr. Anna Von Sholly, Dr. Pinero’s path was not smooth sailing. In fact, it took two years and an appeal to the US Surgeon General to get accepted as an Army contact surgeon in 1918. Her responsibilities included carrying out those of an anesthesiologist, laboratory physician, and nursing director. She worked at the San Juan, Puerto Rico, base hospital with 4 male physicians, where she handled the influenza epidemic. After a year of service, she was granted an honorable discharge. Dr. Pinero graduated from College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston in 1913 and became the first Puerto Rican woman to join the Puerto Rican Medical Examiners Board.

These two women are one of many who risked their lives to support their countries in a time where they fought to be acknowledged. It is critical to remember and honor their contributions to the war efforts and the suffrage movement.

Thanks for reading!

Adeba M.



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