For this Women’s History Month, Brooklyn Collection is spreading awareness about Dr. Mary M. Crawford, a woman who radically altered how the world viewed female doctors during the early 1900s. Not only did Doctor Crawford serve abroad during World War I as the only female doctor in the American Hospital in Paris but she was also the first female ambulance surgeon in Brooklyn who later became chief surgeon of the Williamsburg hospital.
To understand Dr. Crawford’s incredible contributions to the medical field and to Brooklyn history one must understand the environment in which she was living. During the 1800s and 1900s female doctors were exposed to many hostile and misogynistic working conditions from their male counterparts. These aggressions were encapsulated well in the 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article that stated, “.Hospitals were not welcoming women interns in 1908. Women were a problem the bearded doctors of the day were willing to cope with only as patients.” Dr. Crawford did not let these obstacles stand in her way. She graduated from Cornell Medical School in 1904 and went on to become the first woman to intern at Williamsburg Hospital in 1908. Crawford was able to take the intern examination due to an advertisement oversight in a medical journal that did not explicitly state that women were not allowed to participate. Mary Crawford received one of the highest grades in the class beating out thirty-four men competing against her.
Dr. Crawford became a Brooklyn sensation. People were eager to see the first female ambulance surgeon rush through the Brooklyn streets being led by a horse-drawn ambulance. Crawford became known for tackling unusual cases such as the “human ostrich,” a man who would eat anything in reach and an “insane cobbler” who stabbed three family members. For a year and a half Dr. Crawford worked at the Williamsburg hospital before she decided to start her own private practice in Brooklyn.
Then in 1914, when World War I started to decimate Europe, thanks to the sponsorship of the Duchess of Talleyrand, Dr. Crawford was one of the chosen six people to be sent abroad to aid in the war effort. Dr. Crawford was willing to assist the French in their time of need three years before America ever got involved in this war. This sponsorship was essential for Dr. Crawford because it gave her a direct role in aiding the wounded. Prior to this sponsorship, Dr. Crawford realized that most institutions such as the American Red Cross did not want her to be associated with them because her rank was a doctor and not a nurse.
The devastation that was brought about due to World War I was massive. Millions of soldiers were dying while others were facing extreme conditions such as starvation and illness. Soldiers were not the only ones who were tested, the nurses who were already working overseas were overworked leading to many nurses dying of exhaustion and leaving the rest susceptible to sickness such as the Flu Epidemic that was sweeping across Europe at the time. One of the only ways that female doctors could serve medical unit was as a “contract surgeon or a civilian on hire.” This title let these women lend their medical expertise but denied them “military rank, pay, and benefits.” Doctor Crawford was one of these doctors who without knowing for sure whether or not she would even have lodging when she arrived in France, still sailed to aid those who were injured at the Front.
Upon arrival, Dr. Crawford was not only given the rank of an anesthesiologist ahead of her male counterparts, but she was also given control of a large ward of patients and had prominent roles during major surgeries. This was due to her impressive work record. Dr. Crawford treated patients from places such as France, Ireland, Scotland, England, Morocco, and Tunisia. Dr. Crawford was so popular amongst her patients that they would refer to her as "Mama" when she came to check on them.
After representing Brooklyn oversees for close to a year Dr. Mary Crawford headed back to Brooklyn on September 30, 1915. Though Dr. Crawford never made it back to France, she dedicated her life to the war effort. Upon returning home, she raised money to send back to France. In 1918 she was chosen to be the chairmen of the Medical Women's National Association. A part of her new title allowed her to send women to serve in places such as "Europe, Southwest Asia, and Northeast Africa," giving them the life changing experience she had. Sadly, on August 28th, 1918 Dr. Crawford's brother, Lieutenant Conrad Crawford was shot dead in France as he was fighting the opposing side. Mary Crawford went on to spend thirty years of her life as the medical director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where she lead "five physicians, six nurses, technicians, dentists, and an oral hygienist.”
Dr. Mary Crawford was a radical pioneer for women's equality, and she dedicated her life to improving the medical profession that deemed women inadequate. Without Dr. Crawford's contributions, Brooklyn and those affected by the traumas of World War I would have been drastically altered.