In 1916, Bertha Van Hoosen, one of the cause’s great champions, addressed the membership at their first general meeting in Detroit. To bring focus to her vision for AMWA, she outlined the organization’s goals and identified the necessary committees: Women’s Hospitals, Internships, Scholarships, State Society Transactions, City and District Societies, and Post Graduate Work. But perhaps the most important committee was put into place a few months later—the War Services Committee, which gave birth to the American Women’s Hospitals Service.
There had been much resistance on the part of medical women to the founding and need for AMWA, but Bertha Van Hoosen related in her autobiography, Petticoat Surgeon, how the prejudice against medical women when the war broke out galvanized the need and resolve for organization and advocacy. The creation of AWHS secured the future of AMWA.
The intense feeling against the organization that was exhibited by medical women in all parts of the United States, especially on the Pacific Coast, demanded great loyalty and courage of its members. Condemning petitions were circulated, and the association might have collapsed had it not been that the entrance of the United States into World War I in April, 1917, demonstrated the importance of our organization.
When the Surgeon-General refused to accept the application for army service of any one of the five thousand women physicians in active practice in the United States, a furor was raised, especially on the Pacific Coast. Again a petition was started, this time not against our organization, but against the class and sex discrimination made by the Surgeon-General. When the huge petition, like a full-term pregnancy, rolled into New York City, it was delivered into the hands of our association for submission to the government. Our future existence was assured.
Van Hoosen’s impact on women in medicine cannot be overstated. Her ability to organize and motivate her peers was equaled by her abilities and skills as a physician and a surgeon.
A world renowned surgeon, Dr. Van Hoosen was a founder of AMWA and served as its first president. She was also a long-time editor of the Woman’s Medical Journal. After meeting Dr. Van Hoosen and observing her perform surgery, Karel Pelant of Vienna lamented, “I feel… resentment when I remember that, in Austria, we have had, and still do have, idiots who would not admit a woman to the study of medicine.”
Dr. Van Hoosen was an energetic and dynamic person who blazed trails throughout her life. In addition to being the first AMWA president, she was the first woman to be professor of obstetrics at a coeducational university (Loyola University School of Medicine) and the first honorary fellow of the International College of Surgeons among others. In 1947, she published Petticoat Surgeon, her autobiography.