Trailblazing women doctors came to France's aid after WWI
One hundred years ago, in September, Dr. Ier Jay Manwaring closed her medical office in Norwich and posted a sign on the door that said, “Somewhere in France.”
Manwaring was embarking on what she later called the greatest experience of her life, as a volunteer with a contingent of women doctors who were determined to serve their country after the U.S. entered the first world war. She spent more than a year in France, treating countless civilians suffering from injuries, malnutrition, and waves of epidemics in a region that had witnessed the Battles of the Marne in September 1914 and July-August 1918.
For the women, getting to France was a struggle in itself, as doctors with the War Service Committee of the Medical Women’s National Association were not granted the same status as male doctors in the Army Medical Department.
Undaunted, the doctors formed the American Women’s Hospitals organization and aligned with the American Red Cross and the American Committee for Devastated France. AWH’s mission was to raise money to operate a hospital, staff it with doctors and nurses, and acquire and equip ambulances. Manwaring raised $5,000 in Connecticut.
The story of her work in France is documented in War Service Committee reports stored at the Drexel University Legacy Center in Philadelphia. Although Manwaring, born in 1872, was a well-known citizen of Norwich, much of the evidence of her life in this area, and any correspondence that might have survived her death in 1958, has either disappeared or is inaccessible. The most visible exception is the stately house with a mansard roof that was relocated from the Manwaring family farm in East Great Plain (site of the present Three Rivers Community College) to 11 Manwaring Road, across the street.
Ier’s parents, John and Mary Manwaring, moved from Montville to the 100-acre Norwich farm when she was 5. She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1895, opened her Norwich practice the next year, and was the physician at Connecticut College from 1916 until she left for France.
When members of the first women’s hospital unit arrived, they could hear the thunder of artillery as the Allies, in the Marne region, stopped the Germans’ final offensive of the war. The women wore custom-designed khaki uniforms modeled after those of British officers. Manwaring and 25 other doctors, nurses and drivers formed the second unit. Her driver, and mechanic, was Florence Chapman, of Montville.
Their destination, assigned by the French, was Luzancy, on the Marne River. Residents of the area were returning to their homes when the doctors opened their hospital in an old chateau — a place that the Germans had also used as a hospital. In reports to the war committee, Dr. M. Louise Hurrell, of Rochester, N.Y., director of the second unit, described the chateau as a beautiful old building. One of the townspeople told her it was a “great pleasure for him and his wife after dusk to take themselves to the upper windows of their home and see back of the trees the lights of the chateau hospital and the ambulances coming and going.”
Some of the doctors worked at the hospital, while others, like Manwaring, had “dispensary routes.” Doctor, nurse, and driver road into the countryside and saw patients wherever they could, in rooms without roofs, in churches and cellars. “Tales can be told of the need for sabots by the doctors as the slippery mud of the barnyard impeded their progress from one hovel to another,” Hurrell wrote. In December, she reported that “Dr. Manwaring reached home last night, tired but contented, with a list of 65 patients in a radius of 30 miles to her credit.”
Doctors with the unit treated more than 20,000 people in 195 villages, at what Hurrell said was an average cost of less than $1 per patient. From November 1918 to August 1919, the dispensary doctors made 8,348 house calls. They treated skin diseases, hernias, heart and kidney troubles in the old, and malnutrition in babies. They dressed abscesses and treated ulcers. Surgeons at the chateau did Caesareans, took out tonsils, and repaired mangled limbs.
The first epidemic was Spanish influenza, followed by attacks of pneumonia, dysentery, scarlet fever, measles and typhoid. For six weeks, Hurrell wrote, “hardly a day passed that some one of the AWH doctors was called upon to write a certificate of death for some poor unfortunate who had not even been seen in life by a physician.”
Some of the staff members worked day and night at the height of outbreaks. During the typhoid epidemic, the doctors cleaned courtyards and streets, applying Lysol and chloride of lime. They instructed villagers on sanitation practices and quarantines, and persuaded them to get vaccinations.
Eventually the French doctors — some grumbling about competition — began returning to their villages, and the Americans shifted their efforts to places where they were needed. In January, Manwaring’s routes were north of Chateau-Thierry, and in April, she worked in about a dozen towns in the “liberated regions at Crépy-en-Laonnois.” It was at Crépy that she treated one of the other AWH doctors who was stricken with measles.
As the doctors prepared to leave Luzancy in March 1919, a ceremony was held in their honor. Manwaring’s letter home was quoted in the Norwich Bulletin: “We marched to the Marne (town hall) where we were met by the mayor, the municipal council, prefet (governor) and a deputy from Paris. After the exercises we marched to the hospital and listened to some very fine speeches in French, of course."
They were named honorary citizens of Luzancy and four of the doctors, including Manwaring, received medals, equivalent to the French Legion of Honor. “Please don't think I’m bragging. I really did not deserve mine but I love it just the same,” Manwaring wrote.
Then it was back to work as the Americans opened another hospital, in Red Cross tents, in Blérancourt, about 50 miles north of Luzancy.
Manwaring arrived back in New York on Oct. 10, and after a week’s rest she returned to her practice. In the 1930s, she retired to her farm and devoted herself to her agricultural interests, raising Cheviot sheep and holding sheep-shearing contests.
Lynda Laux-Bachand is a former editor at Glamour magazine and the Journal Inquirer in Manchester. She lives in Lisbon.