Medicine Under Fire: A Woman Doctor in France During the Great War
From our nation’s founding, Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill East and West cemeteries have been the final resting place for well-known American generals such as the Revolutionary War hero and George Washington confidant Hugh Mercer and the “Victor of Gettysburg,” General George Meade. But there you can also find a decorated veteran of the “Great War,” Dr. Maude Mary Kelly, whose story needs to be told.
Maude was born September 28, 1877, in the seaport Dover in Kent, England, the daughter of British Army Captain Patrick Kelly and Mary Cousins Kelly. She came to the U.S. with her father in 1903 and settled in Philadelphia. She finished her medical training there, at the famed Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania under the mentorship of Dr. Alice Weld Tallant.
The two continued their relationship after her graduation, with Dr. Kelly accepting posts at the College and at the Philadelphia General Hospital. Their careers were solidly in place when Europe went to war in 1914.
Women in World War I
By the time the U.S. entered the conflict in April of 1917, over 16,000 American women had sailed to Europe to support our future allies and to help in the devasted villages of France. Most went as nurses, ambulance drivers, and relief workers, but many American women doctors, including Dr. Kelly and Dr.Tallant, wanted to serve in their chosen profession.
In anticipation of a war declaration, the U.S. Government sent a survey to all physicians and surgeons asking how and if they would serve, forgetting that there were already thousands of females in practice. Those women who volunteered, like the two Philadelphia doctors, were turned away. The American Army had a strict policy forbidding women physicians from practicing overseas. Despite constant shortages of physicians throughout the war, the U.S. military refused to commission women doctors, even those who had more experience than their male colleagues.
But Dr. Tallant was a graduate of Smith College and it was organizing its own brigade to send to France. Alumni Harriet Boyd Hawes, a social worker who had seen first-hand the devastation in France, called on her fellow Smith graduates to put their abilities and their “good sense” to use in the war-torn region. The requirements? A useful skill, to be at least 25 years old, physically fit, and able to speak French and “drive motors.” In all nineteen women sailed for France on the 29th of July, 1917. In addition to 40-year-old Dr. Maude Kelly and 42-year-old Dr. Alice Tallant, they included a wireless operator, a cobbler, a carpenter, social workers, a kindergarten teacher, and a farmer.
The women arrived in the small town of Grecourt on the last civilian train to run. Although they had been issued gas masks, they were still surprised at how close they were to the front. Dr. Kelly wrote to her friends at the Women’s Medical College of her situation, “Movement of troops… dynamite placed on bridges, more frequent visits from aeroplanes, observation balloons almost right over us… The Germans were advancing!”
Despite the dangers, the Unit quickly set up a dispensary, a school and a kitchen to aid the desperate villagers. They distributed food and clothes while the doctors treated everything from pneumonia to childbirth. As the war progressed the Unit was evacuated, with all but the doctors joining the Red Cross efforts.
Dr. Kelly and Dr. Tallant found their services were needed elsewhere, with the hard-hit French Army. Unlike their American counterparts, the French had always included women physicians within their ranks. As Dr. Tallant put it, “They weren’t as picky…. They welcomed us with open arms.”
Given two stripes, the equivalent of a lieutenant, Dr. Kelly worked in field hospitals from Vic-sur-Aisne to Coulommiers. She opened village dispensaries and was responsible for all military and civilian health and their emergency evacuations for many miles in each direction.
At the end of the war, all were still standing. Although they had been exposed to the worst of modern warfare conditions, the entire Smith Relief Unit survived. Drs. Kelly and Tallant both rose to the rank of honorary majors in the French Medical Corps, the only American women to do so, and were awarded two of that nation’s highest military honors, the Service de Sante and the Croix de Guerre.
After the war, the two returned to the practices they put on hold. They were two women vets who still couldn’t vote or serve in the U.S. Military. It wasn’t until 1941 when a Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania colleague, its Dean Dr. Margaret Craighill, was the first woman doctor to receive a military commission in the United States Army.
Dr. Maude Kelly died on December 5, 1928 of carcinoma of the colon. She was buried – in her French army uniform – at Laurel Hill East Cemetery, surrounded by fellow veterans.
On December 17th, Wreaths Across America Day, volunteers will place balsam wreaths on their graves to honor and remember them, and to remind us of the sacrifices they made for our freedoms.
Laurel Hill East has been a Wreaths Across America participant since 2017, expanding the program to Laurel Hill West this year.
“The Wreaths Across America mission to honor, remember, and teach is similar to our Friends of Laurel Hill’s mission to do the same for all buried on our grounds,” notes Beth Savastana, Volunteer and Tour Manager and WAA Location Coordinator. “By participating with Wreaths Across America we can honor our veterans beyond our annual Memorial Day Ceremony and parade.”
“I am proud to participate with Wreaths Across America in two such historic cemeteries where many of these veterans don’t have living or visiting descendants. Wreaths Across America encourages all volunteers to ‘say their names’ as we lay wreaths and I think that is extremely important- remembering and acknowledging those whose service or existence may have been forgotten. I believe it is this same feeling that brings dozens of volunteers out on Wreaths Across America National Day.”
Wreaths Across America relies on donations for the thousands of wreaths that will be placed that day in over 2,800 cemeteries across the country. A $15 sponsorship places a hand-crafted balsam wreath on a veteran’s grave.
Sponsorships are needed at many of the participating cemeteries. Beth encourages us to give before this year’s campaign closes November 28th. “At Laurel Hill East we have approximately 2,000 known veteran graves and we average about 300 wreath sponsorships each year- so we need many more!”
To sponsor a veterans’ wreath at a cemetery near you, to volunteer or donate to a local sponsorship