Women Doctors During WWI


The book I’ve spent most of the summer working on takes place during World War I. Before I decided to write this story, what I knew about “the Great War” could have fit in one short sentence.

I spent three weeks immersed in research and, as tends to happen when I’m writing something historical, I fell down the research rabbit hole and Captain Cavedweller wasn’t sure I’d ever resurface.

Reading about the people who sacrificed so much (soldiers, those who served in any capacity, and those at home), just leaves me heartsore, yet so incredibly grateful they were willing to do what they did. Not only were these people in the midst of a world war, but also a worldwide pandemic with the Spanish flu.

As I waded through the research, I discovered something interesting about the doctors from America who served in World War I overseas. Eleven of them were women.

During World War I, the U.S. military would not accept women physicians into the Army Medical Corps, but they would allow them to serve as contracted personnel. This meant they were considered civilians who worked for the Army medical department and were paid a lower salary without military rank or benefits. In total, 56 women physicians became contract surgeons during the war, but only 11 went overseas where they mostly worked as anesthetists.

One of those women was Dr. Anne Tjomsland, who inspired much of the medical part of my story. Born in Norway in 1880, Dr. Tjomsland earned her bachelor’s and medical degrees from Cornell. She became an American citizen in 1917.  She interned, and then worked at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Hospitals around America began forming base hospitals and training prior to the United States officially entering the war in the spring of 1917. The first fifty base hospitals were organized by civilian institutions (medical schools, hospitals) and funded significantly by donations.

The very first base hospital was founded at Bellevue in 1916 and became known as Base Unit #1. They began training that year, anticipating the United States entering the war. When the unit was mobilized in November 1917, Dr. Tjomsland was initially barred from joining as a physician because she was a woman. Since the base commander considered her essential, he fought for her to be appointed as a contract surgeon and won.

Dr. Tjomsland wrote a book in 1941, Bellevue in France, of her experiences that provided so much rich detail, I could easily picture her journey from American doctor to wartime physician.

The ship she traveled on to cross the Atlantic was the RMS Olympic, a White Star luxury ship and sister ship to the RMS Titanic. The ship that had once been known for such luxury was converted to a transport ship during the war. The grand old dame was given a dazzle, or razzle dazzle, paint job that supposedly made it harder for German submarines to lock in on a target. The paint design consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes using contrasting colors, interrupting and intersecting each other. If nothing else, some of the patterns painted on ships looked as though they may have made the enemy dizzy.

Base Unit #1 traveled to Liverpool, England, then traveled by train to Southampton, where they boarded another boat to cross the English Channel, landing at Le Havre, France. From there, they rode a train to Paris, but found the tracks had been bombed, so they had to backtrack and found an alternate route to their destination of Vichy, a spa town known for its healing waters as far back as the time of Roman emperors. A railroad ran through Vichy, making it easy to get to, and it was far enough away from the front to make it relatively safe.

Once in Vichy, Base Unit #1 took over several hotels. Their first patients were recovering French soldiers who were quickly moved elsewhere to make room for wounded American soldiers. The hospital would treat anyone, civilians included, who needed assistance.

By reading Dr. Tjomsland’s book, and the stories of women who served as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and other positions in war-torn France, I did my best to convey not only the historical details but also the heart-wrenching emotions they experienced in my story.


I often get requests from readers to tell the story of a secondary character. One that has received requests too many to count has been Sadie from my Pendleton Petticoats series. She first makes an appearance as a tough eight-year-old in the book Marnie. Readers get to watch her grow and mature (and torment a boy named Harley John) throughout the rest of the series.

Now it’s time for Sadie and Harley John to get their own story. Sadie releases August 26, but you can pre-order your copy now for just $2.99!

She yearns for far-flung adventures. He longs for the home he’s found in her heart. Will a world at war tear them apart, or draw them closer together?

For most of her life, Doctor Sadie Thorsen has imagined seeing the world on grand adventures. When America joins the war raging across the world in 1917, it seems her dreams are about to come true. She travels overseas as a contracted physician, eager to do her part to help the war effort. Endless streams of wounded push her to the limits of endurance, then she receives word Harley John Hobbs, the man she’s loved for years, is missing in action. Unable to bear the thought of life without him in it, she refuses to let go of her hope that he’s alive.

The day Sadie Thorsen shoved Harley John Hobbs down on the playground was the day she marched off with his heart. He spent years doing everything in his power to become successful, determined to have more than himself to offer Sadie if she ever returns to their eastern Oregon town. Conscripted to join the American Expeditionary Forces, Harley John answers the call and heads to France. Wounded and alone, he clings to the promise of seeing Sadie one last time.

Can deep, abiding love withstand the tragedies and trials of a world at war?

I thought you might enjoy a little excerpt from Sadie today. In this scene, she’s infuriated with the men who refuse to let her go to France.


The temper Sadie had, to this point, kept in check reached full boiling force. She knew she should leave before it erupted, but instead, walked over to the table and slapped both hands on the surface, causing all four of the men to jump.

“Lieutenant Colonel Grimes, if you could please, for a moment, come down off that high horse you’re riding and forget the fact I’m a woman, you will see I have been working alongside doctors since I was thirteen. I’ve patched up men who’ve been in knife fights, gun fights, dog fights, fist fights, and even a few who were impaled with arrows. I’ve worked on every kind of wound you could imagine, treated burn victims, even assisted with amputations. Because of my varied and vast experience, and the fact I am willing to stubbornly forge onward when others surrender is exactly the reason I should be among those who are with this base hospital in France. I can and will help the soldiers there. If you won’t accept my skill and talents, I’ll find someone who will. I don’t care if I have to row my own boat across the Atlantic, I will get there!”

“Doctor Thorsen, you’re temper fit is exactly the reason why women are not fit to serve in military conditions and times of war.”

“Not fit to serve? Not fit to serve!” Her raised voice bounced off the walls. “Sir, you have enlisted any number of nurses for this venture. Won’t they work alongside the doctors to do whatever they can to help the wounded? Are they not females being thrust into the midst of military conditions in a time of war? Are they not fit to serve? Of course, they are! They are fit to serve, and so am I.” She wanted to reach across the table and shake some sense into the man staring down his long, thin nose at her.

As she did when she was truly angry, she lost the cultured speech she’d worked so hard to acquire and resorted to the language she’d used when Marnie and Lars had first adopted her. “If you’re just too dad-blamed bullheaded and addlepated to see it, then I’m questioning why the Army has declared you fit to serve. I’ve encountered more mulish, malefic, muddleheaded men in the past four years than any woman would ever want to think about meeting, but I do believe, sir, you ought to be crowned King Uppity over them all.”

If you were in Sadie’s shoes, what would you do? 

Also, if you haven’t read any of my Pendleton Petticoats books yet, get this boxed set with the first three stories while it’s on sale for 99 cents!

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After spending her formative years on a farm in Eastern Oregon, hopeless romantic Shanna Hatfield turns her rural experiences into sweet historical and contemporary romances filled with sarcasm, humor, and hunky western heroes.
When this USA Today bestselling author isn’t writing or covertly hiding decadent chocolate from the other occupants of her home, Shanna hangs out with her beloved husband, Captain Cavedweller.

27 thoughts on “Women Doctors During WWI”

  1. This sounds like a delightful book and series, and no doubt Sadie pushes her way and gets to France. Thank you for introducing me to it.

  2. Shanna- I’m so excited for this book to come out. I myself do not know much about WWI, so I’m so excited to learn more about this time period from you. Sadie, I think, will become one of my favorite characters you’ve written about.
    Love & hugs, My Sweet Friend.

    • Aw, thank you, Tonya. Sadie is, a Jess mentioned, a firecracker, and she’s such a fun character to write abut. I so hope you’ll enjoy her story – and the history included in the book, too! Hugs and smiles, my friend!

  3. I love hearing about your research, and firecracker characters like Sadie! I’m not a doctor, but I’d fight tooth and nail like Sadie to help I whatever way I could.

  4. Wow! I don’t remember ever learning about WWI in history class, and definitely didn’t know about the women doctors! Sounds like a great book, and thanks for sharing your research with us!

    • Thank you, Trudy. I don’t remember learning much about WWI in school either. But I so enjoyed researching this book and learning about all the women who served. Thanks for popping in today!

  5. Wow! I think Sadie would find a way to get there.

    Thank you for writing a story about a little known fact about women serving as doctors in WWI.

  6. Hi Shanna , Thank you so much for sharing this piece of History, I learned alot reading it. Your book sounds very intriguing and the book cover is Gorgeous, I love it!! I would fight for it just like Sadie is doing ! Have a great rest of the week and stay safe. God Bless you and your family.

  7. Howdy, Shanna! I, too, love the era around the Great War. My historical suspense series, The Secret Six, is set in that time period, and the research was fascinating. Such a huge time for our country for the advances it made.

    Wishing you the best for yet another new book from you!

  8. Huge Congrats, Shanna! Love the excerpt and that cover is so pretty. It’s interesting that you chose to make her a doctor. I’ve often been tempted but the amount of research that would require kept me from it. I look forward to reading this. She’s a great character. 🙂

    • Oh, thank you, Miss Linda. I am so happy with the cover. It was a lot of research, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Congrats on your upcoming release. Can’t wait to read it!

  9. Wow Shanna … the research alone had to be heart wrenching. I love the picture of Dr Anne. What a passion to serve her comrades during the war. Thank you for sharing your research and excerpts from your new book Sadie. You are an amazing author.

    • It was. I always feel like my heart has been through a shredder when I research info from any of the wars. They are just such a hard, sad time in history. Dr. Anne was amazing and her book is fantastic. Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathy! I so appreciate you!

  10. I also love history, and I especially love a good book wherein the author has done her research and then put such endearing characters in it for us to come to love! Can’t wait to read it, Shanna!!

  11. If I were I Sadie’s shoes it would have been difficult not to have reacted just the way she did. I try not to lose my temper because when I do, I tend to be like Sadie. Interesting that men always consider and use women’s “emotions” against them. We are too fragile, too emotional, cry easily, lose our tempers, and can’t handle anything difficult. Ha! One rarely sees women in barroom brawls or shoot outs. Competency should be the only determining factor. Her point about nurses being seen as able to handle the situation, but not her is well taken. It highlights their real issue. The nurses are subordinates. A doctor would be an equal and they couldn’t handle that.

    Thank you so much for sharing your research. The painting of the hull of the ship is interesting. It really does create a degree of camouflage. When I first looked at the picture of the ship, it was rather confusing. It took a lot of fortitude to brave the trans-Atlantic trip and then head into harms way. Dr. Tjomsland’s story is certainly an interesting one.

    The last thing I needed to do was order more books, but this 3 book set was hard to refuse. I have been interested in the Pendleton series for awhile.

    • Thank you so much, Patricia. I hope you enjoy the Pendleton series and the books! And I agree, the razzle-dazzle paint is almost hard to look at in a photo, it must have been quite something in person!
      I loved being able to write a strong character like Sadie who has learned not to take no for answer when it’s based on her being a woman.
      I so appreciate your comments and stopping in today!
      Have a lovely August!

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