The American Women’s Hospital Services (AWHS) — as relevant today as it was during the first World War!
Finding a charity for 2023 that checks every box isn’t easy. But if the idea of a transparent, inclusive, women-operated organization woven in the fabric of American history strikes a chord with you, look no further than the American Women’s Hospital Services (AWHS). The charitable arm of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), the AWHS has an enviable track-record of service that continues to this very day.
In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find another organization that’s as relevant today as it was over a century ago. Yet, that’s the implausible story of American Women’s Hospital Services founded in 1917. Today, the AWHS is respected throughout the world for its relentless lifesaving relief efforts, grants, medical clinics, and collaborative outreach programs to help ease human suffering in the most underserved, often remote regions of the globe.
Whether it’s responding to epic flooding in Pakistan that left an estimated 650,000 pregnant women suffering from maternal malnutrition, supporting a remarkable clinic in Nepal or a floating hospital in the Amazon, participating in hunger relief efforts in Afghanistan where one million children were expected to die from starvation over the winter… addressing the ongoing civilian needs in Ukraine, and other war-torn countries… or providing 80,000+ face masks and shields to the Navajo Nation at the height of the pandemic — the AWHS goes any time and to any place where people are suffering.
To gain a better understanding of this storied organization, it’s important to take a quick step back in time. The truth is, the AWHS might never had been formed had the U.S. Army done the right thing from the start and commissioned female physicians to serve in World War 1. After all, there was no shortage of female physicians willing and able to “do their part” in support of the war effort. Shamefully, the U.S. military steadfastly refused to allow women physicians official commissioned status within the military.
Here’s a brief example of the sentiment of the day towards women physicians. “There are lots of reasons why it should not be desirable that they be called upon to examine large numbers of men stripped to the skin.” — Colonel George E. Bushnell
Fortunately, leaders of the Medical Women’s National Association (MWNA, as AMWA was known at the time), were already hard at work recruiting women physicians, raising funds, and forming alliances with the American Red Cross. Finally, in 1918, and under the supervision of the MWNA War Service Committee, the AWHS opened its first medical hospital in France.
After that, there was no holding the AWHS back. It was not long before a second hospital was established and clinics and ambulance services sprang up throughout France and the Balkan Peninsula. While military casualties were among the patients treated by those who served through the AWHS, the organization’s prime focus was providing medical care for women, children, and civilian casualties of the war. They worked with groups like the American Red Cross and the American Committee for Devastated France to set up treatment centers, and by the end of the war, the AWHS had registered over 1000 physicians and sent 78 women physicians overseas. More would continue to go after the war to help with the restoration efforts.
As Esther Pohl Lovejoy, MD, who helped establish the American Women’s Hospitals and led the organization for 47 years, put it, “The men of the medical profession were called to the colors. The Nation stood ready to provide transportation, buildings, medical and hospital supplies. The women of the medical profession were not called to the colors, but they decided to go anyway.”
Although the U.S. military ultimately relented and started hiring women doctors to work as contract surgeons both in the U.S. and abroad, these women were never given military rank or the benefits they so rightfully deserved. AMWA would be a leading organization to fight for the successful passage of the Sparkman Johnson Act which allowed women to receive commissions in the Navy, Army, and Public Health Service. In the ensuing years, even to the present time, the fight to secure equal rights for women physicians would remain a key mission of the American Medical Women’s Association.
Few non-profits can match the longstanding, humanitarian and heroic efforts of the AWHS. And today, the organization remains more actively involved than ever, from supporting clinics around the world to funding in-the-field opportunities for medical students and residents, and physicians. The AWHS also collaborates with partner organizations who also do incredible work. For example, the AWHS recently engaged in fundraising campaigns for Days for Girls to create eco-friendly sustainable menstrual pads for hundreds of women living in Suriname, South America.
During the pandemic, the AWHS responded whenever the call for help arose. When colleagues in Italy faced devastating supply shortages during the initial wave of COVID-19, AWHS arranged for donations of facemasks and pulse oximeters. When the U.S. faced its own PPE shortages, AWHS partnered with The Robonauts to produce and distribute 3-D printed face shields. When the second wave of COVID-19 began spiking in India, AWHS quickly connected with various organizations to help fund and facilitate equipment for badly needed oxygen, including portable oxygen concentrators and pressure swing adsorption (PSA) oxygen generating plants providing an ongoing source of medical grade oxygen..
Another example of the AWHS’s continued involvement in the world community is the Friendship Clinic in Nepal, which supports nearly 50,000 villagers in the area around Mehrauli, Chitwan, Nepal. For years, AWHS funded the salary of a nurse and midwife who bicycled to surrounding villages providing health education and perinatal care.
Yet another example is Engeye, a clinic in rural Uganda co-founded by an AMWA medical student with her grandmother’s inheritance gift and a cadre of volunteers. Now in its 16th year, Engeye provides healthcare, education, and community development initiatives in the village of Ddegeya – and continues to receive funding from AMWA.
The AWHS also offers Community Project Grants to encourage and promote AMWA member involvement in service and advocacy projects within their communities. These grants are designed to support community engagement, and include health-related community-based research, community service projects, and community advocacy/education.
The list of historic contributions made by the AWHS since 1917, and those currently underway, goes on and on. So, if you’ve been looking for a charity that truly speaks to your concept of giving… one where virtually 100 percent of the proceeds go to those in need or to support the work itself, we invite you to learn more about the American Women’s Hospital Services, and the American Medical Women’s Association.
Consider supporting current efforts in Pakistan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Kenya.