The American Women’s Hospitals and World War I—There Ought to Be a Movie!

women md American Women’s Hospitals Services doctors and nurses in front of headquarters in New York City, 1918. (Courtesy of Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives & Special Collections)

When will Hollywood studios finally get around to making a movie about the courageous women physicians, nurses, dentists, ambulance drivers, and aides who battled sexism at home and disease overseas in war-ravaged Europe? The American Women’s Hospitals and their early leaders, Rosalie Slaughter Morton and Esther Pohl Lovejoy, are awaiting their turn on the silver screen.  This is the centenary of World War I; 1917 is the centenary of America’s entrance into that war. Here’s the story for you.

Act I: The outbreak of World War I brings women into new jobs, it has them out selling Liberty Bonds, and it sees them canning food and helping send supplies overseas. Women physicians step up to offer their services to the Army Medical Reserve Corps—and find that their skills are not welcome.

Act II: Halted but undaunted, activist women physicians found the Medical Women’s National Association in 1915.  (Today this organization is known as the American Medical Women’s Association).  Next, they create the American Women’s Hospitals Service, in 1917. Following successful fundraising (a challenge in wartime), 25 women—10 physicians, 1 dentist, 6 nurses, 5 ambulance drivers, and 3 volunteer aides—set sail for Europe. They disembark and proceed to establish American Women’s Hospital No. 1 of the American Red Cross in Neufmotiers, Seine-et-Marne, France, in 1918.

Act III: Soon after their arrival, the Armistice ends World War I, but disease and public health crises continue. To meet the needs of local populations and refugees struggling with disease outbreaks and unmet medical needs, American Women’s Hospitals open in Greece, the Balkans, and the Middle East.  As the credits roll we learn that women win the vote in 1920 and that the American Women’s Hospitals open units in other parts of the globe as they continue to help those in need.


Unlike a lot of popular films, this one is going to have a lot of starring roles for women.  Who will play Rosalie Slaughter Morton? Morton came from a wealthy Virginia family and attended finishing school before attending the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduating with honors.  She studied abroad and worked as a gynecologist and faculty member of the New York Polyclinic Hospital and Post-Graduate Medical School.  She then became the first woman faculty member at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Morton saw service in field hospitals in World War I and fundraised and organized the American Women’s Hospitals.  After the war she continued to practice medicine and to work in support of medical hospitals in Europe.

220px-Esther_Pohl_LovejoyEsther Pohl Lovejoy

Who will play Esther Pohl Lovejoy?  Her story couldn’t be more different from Morton’s.  Lovejoy was born in a logging camp in the Washington Territory in 1869. She had a few years of lumber-camp school and some private lessons from an impoverished professor who lived in a hotel her father managed for a time. After saving money she earned working in a department store, she began her studies at the Medical School at the University of Oregon.  She trained as an obstetrician in Chicago and practiced for a time in Alaska and then in Oregon, becoming the director of the Portland Board of Public Health.  A feminist and suffrage activist, Lovejoy went to France in 1917 on behalf of the American Red Cross and returned in 1919 as head of the American Women’s Hospitals—an organization she headed for a remarkable 48 years while also founding and serving as first president of the Medical Women’s International Association.

 a144_049_001_pg Two uniformed women with American Women’s Hospitals Services, ca 1919. (Courtesy of Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives & Special Collections)

This movie won’t just feature two great actresses playing Morton and Lovejoy.  There will be roles for women as nurses, drivers, known back then as “chauffeuses,” and hospital aides. Male actors will find parts too—as cabinet members, federal elected officials, and military officers who rejected the women physicians when they lobbied to join the war effort. There’s plenty of drama and action in this story.  Screenwriters, producers and directors, please get busy.


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Aleka Munroe February 6, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Do you have sources for the specific hospitals or orphanages in Greece that these amazing women organized? If so, would you share. My great grandfather, a refugee from Turkey, and his family was moved to the island of Evia (Euboea) in Greece because he was a teacher of Greek language, culture certified by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. My grandmother only knew it was an orphanage run by an “American women’s group.” I am researching how many lived there, for how long, etc. Any sources would be most appreciated.

  • Roz Warren April 18, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Janet — I trust you’re working on the screenplay in your spare time?

  • Jennefer Poole April 17, 2014 at 8:33 am

    There is a BBC program “The Crimson Field” which is about a field hospital during WWI. Since a lot of American TV programs are spin off’s from British TV maybe at least we can look forward to PBS mini-series of the inspiring American women.

  • Knitting Clio April 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Janet I can’t stop thinking about this idea — we should make this ourselves!

  • Nana Gregory March 19, 2014 at 12:32 am

    Fascinating – have forwarded this to Lori Precious, an independent film director.

  • ellensue spicer-jacobson March 16, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Dear Janet,
    I am an alumna of Douglass, now part of Rutgers. Thanx 4 for this terrific article. A movie—definitely!