real life

The forgotten Australian heroine of World War One.

When we think of World War One, it is the diggers of Gallipoli that spring to mind, those poor young men who made a name for Australia on the international stage. To a lesser extent, the 2,500 Australian nurses who served overseas are remembered. However, almost never mentioned are the dozen female doctors and surgeons, the first generation in their profession, who served their country. One such woman was Dr Helen Sexton who, against official orders and armed only with her medical training, headed to France to heal those wounded pouring off the frontlines. Yet she is barely mentioned in Australian histories of the war, and most people today have never even heard her name.

She is, in every sense of the word, Australia’s forgotten heroine.

Born in 1862, in an era when women’s higher education was scorned, Dr Sexton’s career was right from the start one of fighting for ‘firsts’. Determined to study medicine, she took up arms alongside her classmate Lilian Alexander and together they hounded the University of Melbourne that, like all other Australian universities at the time, had barred its doors to female medical students. In 1887 they won a decisive victory, and the first cohort of seven women entered the medical school. After their studies, being blocked from job opportunities in the male-dominated medical field, these women once again banded together and in 1896 opened the Queen Victoria Hospital, Victoria’s first hospital run by women, for women. Dr Sexton was appointed head of the operating theatre. Another ‘first’ for Dr Sexton was her appointment as a surgeon at the Women’s Hospital in Carlton; she was the first female surgeon to be appointed to the previously all-male medical staff.

A passionate advocate of women’s and children’s health, Dr Sexton was well-loved by her patients and went above and beyond to provide the very best of care in her hospital work, private practice and volunteer work. Very rapidly she made a name for herself as Victoria’s leading female surgeon, and hers was a long and distinguished career.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Dr Sexton was aged 52 and already in retirement from active medical practice. One could have forgiven her for choosing to sit this one out, but that would not have been in her nature. Determined to put her medical skills to use where they were needed most, Dr Sexton offered to equip and run a women’s unit for the Australian military. Their response, however, was categorical and firm: NO. Unwilling to accept the services of female surgeons that would put them in positions of authority over men, the Australian military authorities had forcefully declared that no female doctor would be accepted for active military service.

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Refusing to take no for an answer, Dr Sexton did what she had always done throughout her career: she went it alone. After mobilising support from her high-up connections in Australia and getting them to write her letters of recommendation to medical service (including the Governor General, the Chief Justice, and the Dean of Medicine at the University of Melbourne), Dr Sexton travelled alone to France. It was there where she would accomplish arguably the most audacious and brilliant achievement of her career: to equip and run an independent military hospital in Paris. With the help of four other Australian women, Dr Sexton established the Hôpital Australien de Paris, a small hospital of 21 beds that opened its doors to patients on 22 July 1915. Grateful for any help to stem the flow of casualties, the French military was quick to accept Dr Sexton’s Australian Hospital as an official part of its army medical service, even awarding her the rank of Major and naming her in sole medical charge of the hospital. The hospital’s most impressive feature was that it was run entirely by women. The five Australian women provided everything from administration to cooking and provisions to surgery, topped off by the fact that they paid for the entire hospital and everything in it from their own savings.

Dr Sexton’s medical casebook from 1915, held today at the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, tells the tale of a highly skilled medical practitioner who was devoted to healing the French wounded. At any one time she dealt with a huge range of medical conditions, anything including amputation, shrapnel extraction, fractures, paralysis, poisoning and even syphilis. As the chief doctor, her days would range from presenting a military medal, to dealing with drunken brawling patients, to liaising with French military surgeons in a language that was not her own. Above all, her notes reveal the compassion she felt for these young soldiers who had seen the horrors of war; often she would note their tales of suffering while lying wounded behind enemy lines, or those who had left behind a wife and children.

The Australian Hospital was evidently a great success and a credit to the women who ran it so diligently under the leadership of Dr Sexton. However, it was by no means the only way that she would contribute to the French war effort. After her hospital’s six-month tenure ended in December 1918 and it closed its doors to patients, Dr Sexton was snapped up by a larger Parisian military hospital with which she had liaised, the Hôpital Buffon, and was employed as a doctor. Soon after, however, the stresses of wartime work took their toll and Helen took a period of sick leave in London, finally returning to Australia in October 1916.

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Dr Sexton’s return to home soil was not that of a triumphant wartime hero returning amidst fanfare and celebration, but rather one that faded into insignificance, at least as far as Australia’s history books are concerned. Having being rejected from serving with the Australian army and employing their talents elsewhere, Dr Sexton and the other female doctors who served so valiantly in Europe’s frontlines were barred from any official recognition of their war service by their home country. The country that had been so boastful of its talented women showing Europe what Australia was made of was, however, quick to forget their extraordinary feats. To this day, there is no plaque or monument commemorating any of Australia’s female doctors who served in World War One.

France, on the other hand, did not forget the debt it owed to Dr Sexton. In 1919, she was awarded the gold level of the Médaille de Reconnaissance Française (French Medal of Recognition), the highest level possible, in recognition of her work at the Australian Hospital and the devotion she showed to treating the French wounded. Australia jumped on the bandwagon and invited Helen to a ceremony at Government House to present the medal once it was mailed from France, but the damage was done. Once again, France was more accepting of Dr Sexton than ever her own country was.

100 years after the end of the war, it is more important than ever to reflect on exactly what and whom we are remembering. A recent campaign to posthumously elevate Sir John Monash to the rank of Field Marshal is evidence to the fact that it is the male heroes that are continually evoked, while the women fade more and more into insignificance. The extraordinary courage and determination shown by Australia’s female surgeons were forgotten in the great Australian narratives of the war, and that they have received little more acknowledgement since is shameful. Many of us owe Dr Sexton a great debt: women who work in the field of medicine, women who are now allowed to serve in the armed forces, any women who today refuse to say no because of their gender.

We have a responsibility not to forget. Dr Helen Sexton was there too.

Hannah Steel studies History and French at the University of Melbourne. She has just completed her Honours thesis in French under the supervision of Professor Véronique Duché on the topic A Forgotten Heroine: The Wartime Experience of Dr Helen Sexton, an Australian in Paris 1914-1918.

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