KU Women “Do Their Bit”
April 3, 1917
Three days before the United States formally entered the First World War, 150 KU and Lawrence women gathered in Old Snow Hall to establish a campus chapter of the American Red Cross. Their goal was to learn basic first aid and other important skills useful to the impending war effort.
On the evening of April 3, 1917, they heard the first of several lectures by Dr. Dorothy Child. It was the beginning of a two-month program consisting of ten lessons on first aid, fifteen lessons on hygiene, and an additional fifteen lessons on “care of the sick.” The Red Cross course also offered basic instruction in preparing surgical supplies, such as the rolling of bandages, and sought generally to prepare women for future volunteer work as nurses. Each attendee paid one dollar to cover the cost of supplies.
While KU men were leaving the University to join the Kansas National Guard, provide essential farm labor, or gear up for on-campus military training, “the women of the University of Kansas,” noted the University Daily Kansan, “are preparing to do their bit in the war in which, it now seems certain, the United States is to engage.” The purpose of Red Cross instruction was to teach women the vital skills that would allow them to emerge fully capable of providing genuine medical care to the sick and wounded. It would impart the “experience and knowledge” so essential to nursing duties, and address the incorrect but “prevalent impression that in war time, any woman may offer her services as a nurse, and immediately enter into the work in military hospitals.” Organizers were careful to note, however, that enrollment in the course did not necessarily obligate a person to volunteer or serve in any capacity.
Just one month after the initial class meeting, KU Chancellor Frank Strong was pleased to announce in a May 4, 1917, speech to the National Council of Defense in Washington, DC, 531 KU faculty members and students were participating in Red Cross courses and activities. Of that number, reported Strong, “two hundred forty-four students and teachers are enrolled in regular Red Cross classes in the University,” forcing the Red Cross to close the class due to overcrowding. He added that an additional “seventy-five women students are engaged in bandage work; and two hundred fourteen members of the faculty have joined the local Red Cross Society in Lawrence.”
By 1918, campus war work performed by women had been placed under the direct supervision of Margaret Lynn, associate professor of English at KU. This broad responsibility included “Red Cross work, courses in stenography, First Aid and Home Nursing, and Food Conservation.” Under Prof. Lynn’s direction, KU women, by mid-1918, had prepared 15,000 bandages and compresses and had helped raise over $3,000 for local Red Cross drives. Beyond this Home Front work being done by KU undergraduates, the Graduate Magazine was able to report in June 1918 that no less than 12 female alumni were currently working as Red Cross nurses everywhere from Camp Travis, Texas, to Base Hospital No. 28 in war-torn France.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas