Nov. 18 will mark the centennial of when the armaments of World War I at last fell silent. An armistice had been declared, and the fighting that claimed more than 32 million lives had finally come to an end.
Breaking the war down by numbers can sometimes blunt the human scale of courage and sacrifice. Still, about 4 million Americans served in World War I. Of those, about 13,000 were women, and fewer than 100 of them were physicians.
Only one of those doctors was from Texas: May Agness Hopkins, MD.
Born on Aug. 18, 1883, Dr. Hopkins grew up in Austin. Her father Eugene was a bookkeeper for a coal company but died in an accident in 1893 at only 34 years old. To support her family, the widowed Martha Hopkins found work as a laundress at the State Lunatic Asylum.
Out of these experiences, Dr. Hopkins learned to be resourceful and self-reliant.
She enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin, where a zoology scholarship helped pay her tuition. She stayed busy in school, captaining the women’s basketball team and serving as president of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science in 1906.
Next was medical school at The University of Texas Medical Department, now The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. In the early 20th century, it was acceptable for middle- and upper-class women to attend college, but obtaining a professional degree beyond that was something else entirely. Almost certainly Dr. Hopkins faced prejudice for her efforts, but she graduated in 1911 as the only female in her class.
Dr. Hopkins then moved to Dallas to establish her pediatric practice. While she did note in a 1957 interview with the Dallas Times Herald that some people initially scoffed at a “lady doctor” in town, the decision to relocate there proved to be fortuitous. The early 20th century was transformative for the city of Dallas, which evolved from a frontier town to a thriving urban center that offered women a broader role in its many cultural and commercial developments.
But just as Dr. Hopkins began to build her medical practice, war broke out. Like many of her generation, Dr. Hopkins felt the stirrings of patriotism and duty and wanted to serve. And like most women of her generation, she was shut out of many opportunities to do so.
For doctors who wished to serve, the most direct route to the European front was the Army Medical Reserve Corps, but women physicians were explicitly barred from enlisting. Women could serve as stateside military physicians, but there would be no rank, no promotion, no bonus, and no pension.
The American Red Cross provided another option. The organization placed women directly in France to staff the Children’s Bureau, where they could perform medical services for displaced women and children. This was not battlefield medicine, but it was an opportunity Dr. Hopkins eagerly accepted as it afforded her passage across the Atlantic to work near the war zone.
When Dr. Hopkins left for France in July 1918, she was 35 years old and had never traveled outside of the United States, as she noted on her passport application. But like most new recruits, she was excited to be of service and eager to jump into action.
Told she would first need to fill out a couple of forms, Dr. Hopkins was frustrated to discover this involved four days of repetitive paperwork. She then sat idle for two more weeks as she waited on official orders from the French government.
When Dr. Hopkins at last received an assignment, she was paired with a group of women from Smith College. In fact, four groups of women had arrived in France under the organization of a special Ivy League commission, including alumnae from Radcliffe College, Wellesley College, and Vassar College. The Red Cross broke up the other three groups, giving those women individual assignments. Only the Smith group remained intact.
When Dr. Hopkins headed out to the front lines on Aug. 12, she was part of a coterie of 12 other women. At dusk, they arrived at Chateau-Thierry, a deserted town that only three weeks prior had been held by the Germans during the Battle of the Marne.
Locating the former Red Cross headquarters was the women’s first priority, but they discovered it was uninhabitable. The roof had partially collapsed, all the windows were blown out, and the walls were riddled with shell holes. The women found the garden more hospitable. They laid out their bedrolls underneath the starry skies and nervously awaited a German air raid, which they had been told happened on a regular basis. They were unexpectedly given a reprieve.
“The enemy was good to us the first night,” Dr. Hopkins told the Herald, “and let us sleep in peace.”
The next morning the women further explored the village, but found no buildings intact. The village was unlivable and offered no safe refuge, so the women pitched tents on a nearby hillside. They hardly had finished this task when American troops approached requesting assistance with wounded soldiers.
As the only doctor in the group, Dr. Hopkins was asked to provide medical treatment, while the other women set up a canteen to feed the soldiers. The patients were in transit after being evacuated from field hospitals for further treatment at facilities outside the war zone. At this stop-over point, Dr. Hopkins performed battlefield medicine: re-bandaging wounds, irrigating the eyes of men who had suffered gas burns, and keeping watch on shell-shocked patients.
For the next two weeks, the women spent their days assisting the wounded. But the nights offered no respite. The Germans had resumed nightly air raids, and under a full moon when visibility was better, attacks were all but guaranteed.
“How I have learned to hate the moon,” Dr. Hopkins told the Herald. The women quickly developed a nightly routine. After falling asleep from exhaustion they were usually awakened by planes, prompting them to put on their helmets and run to a nearby dugout.
Dr. Hopkins was supposed to be performing refugee work for the Red Cross. Now she was doing what she and other women physicians had hoped for all along — serving on the front lines of the war.
Eventually, Dr. Hopkins was asked to travel with a group of wounded soldiers to ensure their safe arrival at a nearby hospital. The journey started at 4 am with Dr. Hopkins, five aides, and 106 patients traveling down the Marne River by boat. Their only provisions: a box of bandages the French had left behind. To sterilize her hands, Dr. Hopkins used boiled water.
The journey was arduous and nerve-wracking. When the group finally reached its destination 17 hours later, Dr. Hopkins burst with pride. “David might have slain his tens of thousands, but May Agness had brought through 106 injured men,” she later said of the experience.
After her unscheduled duty with the U.S. Army ended, Dr. Hopkins began her service in the Children’s Bureau in France. By no means was this work any easier. The agency screened roughly 600 children a day for possible infectious diseases and other medical needs. Many of them arrived on convoys from German-occupied territories, released because they were too young to provide labor in the agricultural or industrial sector.
By November 1918 an armistice was declared and fighting between the Germans and Allies ceased. Dr. Hopkins’ work with the Red Cross kept her busy well beyond that date, organizing post-war clinics and hospitals in Marseilles and Avignon. But the war was over, and the armies and the vast bureaucracy that supported them gradually dismantled.
Dr. Hopkins returned to Dallas and busied herself with a wide array of professional and civic commitments. In addition to resuming her medical practice, she served on the faculty at Baylor University College of Medicine (before it moved to Houston), and was a member of the Texas Medical Association and American Medical Association.
In 1927 she married Howard E. Reitzel, who also served in France with the 111th Division Corps of Engineers. In 1931 she cofounded the Lyceum Club of Dallas (an arts, literature, and social activism group for women only) and served as president of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority as well as its umbrella organization, the National PanHellenic Congress.
As Dr. Hopkins transitioned to civilian medicine, “Dallas seemed a little tame” compared to her war experience, she told the Herald. A colleague of Dr. Hopkins’, however, fondly remembered she often made house calls in her large Buick with a revolver tucked under the front seat.
Dr. Hopkins answered the call to serve and did so despite the limitations imposed on women of her generation.
“I couldn’t have dreamed in my wildest dreams how wonderful Dallas has been to me and to all women physicians,” she said in her Herald interview. “But now I know the doors are open. Many hospitals and schools now want the woman physician. There are more and more opportunities for us.”
Special thanks to Robert Gunby, MD, and his wife Elizabeth for bringing Dr. Hopkins to the attention of the TMA History of Medicine Committee.
Tex Med. 2018;114(8):36-39
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