top of page

Women during WWI

In his book "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" published in 1871, the British scientist Charles Darwin studied human evolution and specified the theory of sexual selection. According to Patricia Fara, president of the British Society for the History of Science, in her interview with National Geographic, Darwin's theory of evolution claims that women are intellectually inferior to men. In an already challenging context , scientific studies for women become harder as their parents preferred to educate them to be good, housewives, settled and conservative.

The outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918) changes everything. Most men gone to the battlefield, many women take the opportunity to mobilize and actively participate in the war effort, carrying out tasks previously reserved for men. Courageous, determined and passionate, these women shape our history. Whether they are unknown or famous, let us discover the portrait of some exceptional women during the First World War.

Martha Whiteley: The origin of mustard gas used in my First World War

Nicknamed 'The Woman Who Made the Germans Cry

Martha Annie Whiteley was born on November 11, 1866, in Chelsea, London, England. She is the second child of William Sedgewick Whiteley and Hannah. She is not from a rich family, so her education relies heavily on getting scholarships. She begins her education at Kensington School for Girls. In 1887, she joins the Royal Holloway University in London to study science. She obtains a degree in chemistry in 1890. In 1890, Martha Whiteley graduates from Oxford University with a degree in mathematics. Faced with financial difficulties, Martha Whiteley devotes a significant part of her career to teaching chemistry. At the same time, she continues her research into the organic study of barbiturate compounds and obtains a doctorate in chemistry from Imperial College London in 1902.

In 1914, the year of the First World War, Martha Whiteley is forced to interrupt her research and focus on work that would benefit the British military. During the war, the Imperial College laboratories were used to analyze samples collected from the battlefields. Martha Whiteley and her colleagues focus on the study of irritants and tear gases that make troops evacuate the battlefield. Martha Whiteley and her team set up an experimental trench at Imperial College to test gases and explosives. Martha Whiteley and her team tested the gas on themselves as well to test the effect of the gas on human health. Sadly, Martha Whiteley is injured during this experiment with mustard gas. Her work leads to the development of explosives, named 'DW' for "Dr. Whiteley'. Additionally, she developed synthetic anesthetics during this period.

In 1920, she receives the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her scientific contributions during the war. She is an active campaigner for gender equality in chemistry and, becomes the first woman elected to the Council of the Royal Society of Chemistry, where she serves from 1928 to 1931. Martha Whiteley retires in 1934 and dies in 1956 of heart disease.

Louisa Garrett Anderson: Behind military hospitals run by women

"We must have determination and most importantly confidence in ourselves" Marie Curie

Louisa Garrett Anderson was born in 1873. She is the daughter of James Skelton and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Her brother and sister passed away from meningitis in 1875. She earns her MD in 1897 and becomes a surgeon at the Women's Hospital. Louisa Garrett Anderson is a pioneer British suffragist (campaigner for British women's voting rights). A fervent activist, she is imprisoned for 6 months in 1912 for defacing public property to protest against an anti-suffragist speech.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Louisa Garrett Anderson and her friend Flora Murray establish military hospitals in France and London. Louisa Garrett Anderson leads an exclusively female military hospital in Paris and London, where thousands of soldiers are treated.

She also works on the causes of war injuries to better prevent them. Louisa Garrett Anderson dies in 1943. In recognition of her achievements, a memorial plaque is displayed in London, where the military hospital was based.

Marie Curie: Behind the "Little Curies" mobile radiological vehicles to rescue soldiers

Marie Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. She is the youngest of five children born to Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Skoldowski. Marie Curie comes from a family that values education for both girls and boys. She receives an education in public and private schools, where she learns languages, literature, history, mathematics, and science. Marie Curie is a brilliant student with an exceptional memory with a gifted ability to learn languages. Due to financial difficulties and the prohibition on women attending university, Marie Curie is constrained to work as a tutor. In 1891, she moves to Paris, studies at the Sorbonne, and obtains a Master's degree in Science in 1893 and in Mathematics in 1894. In 1903, she earns a doctorate in physical science for her work on radioactivity. She also receives the Nobel Prize in Physics in collaboration with Henri Becquerel and her husband, Pierre Curie. In 1911, she wins a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium.

In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, Marie Curie decides to interrupt her research to help the soldiers on the battlefields. To overcome the lack of medical devices on the battlefields, Marie Curie decides to transform vehicles into "X-ray cars", equipped with X-ray machines and photographic darkrooms, which can be driven to the battlefield where army surgeons can use X-rays to guide their operations.

Helena Gleichen (1873-1947)

"Your country needs you" Millicent Fawcett

Originally a floral painter, Lady Gleichen was a wealthy aristocrat and a distant cousin of Queen Victoria. During the First World War, Lady Gleichen wants to participate in the war effort. She learns to perform X-rays following the suggestion of a surgeon friend. She then offers her help to the French and British offices, who decline them. Furthermore, she decides to go to the Italian border with her friend Nina Hollings. On board a mobile radiology unit, they perform X-rays on thousands of Italian soldiers who have been shot in the brain or various other parts of the body. Lady Gleichen later becomes a major in the Italian army.


Cowriten par Monika.T and Akila.R and édité by Alizée.M

Sources :

Martha Annie Whiteley

Whiteley, Martha Annie (1866–1956), chemist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (

How World War I changed British universities forever (

Comment - A temporary liberation |2014

The women we erased from history - UnHerd

Comment la Première Guerre mondiale a permis aux femmes scientifiques de faire leurs preuves

Louisa Garrett Anderson

Rebels, groundbreakers and trailblazers: the first ladies of surgery

Record : Papers of Louisa Garrett Anderson

Marie Curie and her X-ray vehicles' contribution to World War I battlefield medicine (

Sara Rockwell, The life and legacy of Marie Curie, Yale Journal and Medicine

Lady Helena Gleichen

Helena Gleichen: pioneer radiographer, suffragist and forgotten hero of World War I (

16 views0 comments


logo sci gi.png
bottom of page