Review: Women to the Front by Heather Sheard & Ruth Lee


Title: Women to the Front: Australian Women Doctors of the First World War

Author: Heather Sheard & Ruth Lee

Published: 2nd April 2021, Ebury Press

Status: Read November 2021



My Thoughts:


After the Great War broke out in 1914, Melbourne doctor Helen Sexton was just one of what was to be at least 28 Australian female medical practitioners, aged between 27 and 56 years olds trained primarily in general medicine but also in specialties from pathology to anaesthesiology to surgery, who attempted to enlist as a doctor with the Medical Armed Forces in Australia or Britain. Their offers rebuffed, the Australian women, eager to aid in the war effort, instead reached out to international medical organisations and soon found roles that allowed them to serve in several settings, including within mobile medical units stationed along both the Eastern and Western fronts.

In Women to the Front, authors Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee, draw on available official documents, personal letters, diaries and other material to ensure that these intrepid Australian women doctors are acknowledged, and lauded for their contributions to the war effort. The book is organised in five parts, with a narrative divided by year and then location, detailing the women’s movements across the Allied fronts. There are a lot of names, acronyms and dates which can be difficult to keep track of, but helpfully the authors also include a glossary, individual biographies of each doctor, and a comprehensive index.

Though Sheard and Lee state they had limited information to work from, they have put together compelling accounts of the women’s experiences as wartime doctors. The Australian doctors served in at least twelve countries, working under a wide range of conditions in a variety of roles from 1914 to 1918. Doctors Laura Forster (NSW), and Ethel Baker (QLD), joined the BHF (British Field Hospital for Belgium) which established a 150-bed field hospital in Antwerp in September of 1914. The facility was quickly flooded with wounded soldiers, the women often required to operate through the night. Barely a month later they were forced to evacuate as the German Army advanced. Pathologist Dr Elsie Dalyell (NSW), the first Australian woman to win a Beit Fellowship, offered her skills to the War Office, but when refused joined Lady Cornelia Wimborne’s Serbian Relief Fund field hospital, and headed to Serbian Macedonia on the Eastern Front where she was responsible for the collection and analyse of specimens to detect and diagnose everything from wound infections, to diseases such as Typhus. Dr Agnes Bennett (NSW) volunteered with the French Red Cross and treated the wounded soldiers from the battlefields of Gallipoli who were shipped to Cairo. Sydney (NSW) doctor Marjory Little took charge of the 46th Stationary Hospital’s laboratory. The 46th, in Étaples, France, was an isolation hospital in the largest army base camp ever established overseas by the British, and contained one of the army’s most important laboratories.

It’s humbling to think of the strength, courage and will these Australian women doctors, and the others noted in this book, possessed. At a time when women had so little agency, and were barely tolerated in the medical profession, they fearlessly entered the theatre of war and proved themselves more than capable. Infuriatingly they were afforded very little official respect from the Australian or British military, either during or after the war. Though sometimes awarded a nominal rank they were denied full military pay rates and benefits. A handful of the women were awarded minor British medals, none received recognition from Australia. Other countries were more generous, Dr Lilian Cooper (QLD), for example, was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava, the Russian Cross of St George, and the French Red Cross Medal for her services. Astonishingly, when World War II began, the Australian military again refused the enlistment of Australian women doctors despite their outstanding record of service.

Inspiring and informative, Women to the Front is an important book acknowledging the invaluable contributions made by the extraordinary Australian women who selflessly served the Allied Forces as doctors during World War I.


Available from Penguin Books Australia or your preferred retailer

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Helen Murdoch
    Nov 14, 2021 @ 05:57:08

    I like books that teach me about little-known areas of well-known topics.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. WendyW
    Nov 14, 2021 @ 06:02:16

    Sounds so interesting. So sad that the efforts of these brave women were not rewarded as they should have been.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Trin Carl
    Nov 15, 2021 @ 01:18:44

    I love reading all things Doctor and will give this one a go. I’m going to assume this story has more drama than one can imagine.

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Liz Dexter
    Nov 15, 2021 @ 04:24:30

    What an important book that sounds very well done. I love works of social history research like this.

    Liked by 1 person


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