A photo of Dr. Mary Crawford with a spotlight illustration with caduceus medical symbols behind her.

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By Lindsay Lennon

“There has been a call for nurses and doctors to the Red Cross, for work abroad,” Mary Crawford 1904, MD 1907, wrote shortly after World War I began. “Tomorrow I’m going to find out if any women doctors need apply, and if so, what sort of work they’d be allowed to do. If only laboratory work, it doesn’t appeal, but if practical caring for the sick or injured, I’m getting on the list.”

When Crawford penned this letter to her future husband, the U.S. was still three years away from entering the Great War, and there were few avenues for American women to aid the Allied powers overseas.

Crawford seized the opportunity to provide hands-on aid to the war effort.

In October 1914—during an era when women comprised less than 5% of U.S. medical doctors—she left her private surgical practice in Brooklyn to work in a hospital near Paris just a few months after the war broke out, becoming one of the first female MDs to treat troops in WWI.

Dr. Mary Crawford in 1914
Awaiting the nine-day voyage to France in 1914.

Her time abroad, and the months leading up to her departure, have been chronicled in a new book: This Ghastly War: The Diary and Letters of a Woman Doctor in the American Ambulance Hospital in France, 1914­–1915.

Published by a small press based in North Carolina, it offers a contemporaneous account of one of history’s bloodiest conflicts through Crawford’s journal entries and correspondence—partly unfolding as daily narrations of her life on the Western Front.

The cover of the book "This Ghastly War" written by Dr. Mary Crawford.

But This Ghastly War is more than a historic chronicling of the horrors of armed conflict. It’s also a multilayered portrait of its author: a woman resolved to find her purpose and see the world, while also struggling to juggle her roles as a daughter, doctor, and romantic partner.

“I’m … so torn between the two sides of the Atlantic,” she wrote in September 1915 to her suitor, who proposed marriage via cablegram while Crawford was in France (though she refused to answer such a question in writing).

“The work I love, and the people I love. I’m too much of a woman not to choose the people, and I’m too much of a man not to mourn bitterly the work.”

Crawford, who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, was a rower and basketball player on the Hill, as well as a member of the Sage College dramatics club and a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister.

After graduating with a BA from the College of Arts & Sciences, she earned her MD from what’s now known as Weill Cornell Medicine.

“In 1908 she won a competitive examination for [the] position of intern at Williamsburg Hospital, Brooklyn, where she served as a surgeon on a horse‐drawn ambulance,” her New York Times obituary noted. “Later she rose to chief surgeon at the hospital.”

Dr. Mary Crawford with her patients in France during World War 1.
Crawford (second from left) with wartime patients in France.

When Crawford returned from her year of WWI service at the Ambulance Hospital, she lectured around the U.S. and Canada to raise money for French medical facilities.

She spent three decades as medical director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where she worked until her retirement.

Crawford’s election to the University’s Board of Trustees in 1927 made her one of its first women members—an event noteworthy enough to merit coverage in the New York Times.

She died in 1972 at age 88, survived by a daughter and two grandchildren.

Crawford’s personal and family papers now reside in the University Library; the collection includes her diaries, correspondence, photos, and even a lock of her hair.

“Let ME do it,” she wrote in a bold hand in a 1908 journal. “MEN can’t accomplish things—but I can—because I’m a woman & Dr. Mary Merritt Crawford!”

A diary entry from 1908.
A diary entry from the University Archives.

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Admittedly, many portions of This Ghastly War—particularly Crawford’s clinically detached descriptions of grievous wounds—are not for the squeamish among lay readers.

She often learned of brutal warfare tactics, such as the use of chlorine gas, through her patients’ injuries and stories—then relayed them in horrified letters to her family.

“They simply can’t keep up this awful slaughter much longer,” Crawford wrote to her mother during an influx of wounded soldiers after the second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in spring 1915. “The men we get are utterly exhausted. They sleep all the time unless in terrible pain.”

They simply can’t keep up this awful slaughter much longer.

But interwoven throughout is Crawford’s own complex and deeply human perspective.

She was an adoring daughter racked with guilt over being thousands of miles away from her family; an empathetic figure who got to know her patients and grew fond of them; and a starry-eyed tourist who gloried in the French countryside, cathedrals, and arts scene.

A group of men and one woman dressed in formal wear posing for a picture in 1931.
On the Arts Quad with fellow members of the Board of Trustees in 1931.

“Paris is so lovely these spring days that I can’t see enough of her,” she wrote to her mother in April 1915.

“There is a gorgeous moon tonight and an airplane has just gone by with a search light on it, and occasionally shooting a roman candle of green. It is a lovely sight—though why it’s done I don’t know.”

Top: Illustration by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All photos by Rare and Manuscript Collections; book cover courtesy of McFarland.

Published September 28, 2023


  1. Carol Sue Hai, Class of 1960

    How impressive this woman’s life was! What she attained professionally was astonishing!
    The photo of her with her “fellow” (literally) trustees is priceless!
    Thank you for this marvelous history of an amazing double alumna!

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