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Book Launch: ‘Women to the Front’

Pictured from left to right: Dr Heather Sheard; Dr Magdalena Simonis; Dr Ruth Lee

On Tuesday May 7th we gathered on hallowed ground at The Welsh Church, in what was once the hall where the founders of the VMWS ran a community clinic and dispensary for women – what would later evolve and expand to become the Old Queen Victoria Hospital across the road, to help authors Dr Heather Sheard and Dr Ruth Lee launch their new book Women to the Front, the Extraordinary Australian Women Doctors in the Great War.

Fittingly this Welsh Church, which was once the first women’s hospital in Victoria, ran by women for women, is also home to the commemorative plaque installed by the Victorian Medical Women’s Society dedicated to the six Melbourne women doctors who served in the Great War.

Women to the Front tells the relatively untold and uncelebrated stories of the extraordinary Australian women doctors who contributed their skills in the World War One war effort.

Authors Dr Heather Sheard and Dr Ruth Lee spoke to a full house about why it was that women doctors were eager to head to the front lines, despite official military policy barring them from doing so. Advertisements were placed in newspapers specifically to discourage medical women from offering their services. Despite the obstacles, at least 26 Australian women surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists, and medical officers found ways to make it to the front lines.

The authors told us the stories of some of these courageous medical women and the voluntary organisations they led, and shared images of their camp sites, makeshift wards, operating theatres, and self-designed, self-funded uniforms.

Dr Magdalena Simonis, President of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, helped the authors launch their book with a closing speech, highlighting the importance of this achievement, which adds what was previously a missing segment to recorded history. It helps us celebrate and remember these women, who were otherwise not given titles or formal recognition. We are able to have them as role models – along with their sense of adventure, great determination, and courage to do what they were told they could not do.

This book is a highly informative and organised accomplishment, comprised of exhaustive research and impressive detail. In both chronological and geographical order, it tells the stories of each of these inspiring women’s backgrounds, motivations, skills, and achievements.

We congratulate Dr Heather Sheard and Dr Ruth Lee for their incredible achievement in this book, and thank them for their significant contribution to the reported history of Australian medical women.

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