The Women’s Field Army: A Precursor to the American Cancer Society

By Carrie Levinson, Reference Services and Outreach Librarian

On November 7, The New York Academy of Medicine had its Annual Discourse, where Dr. Otis W. Brawley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, delivered a fascinating talk on cancer disparities and the status of anti-cancer efforts in the United States. Part of his message was that, while there are differences in diverse populations, increased awareness leads to better outcomes.

Educating the public about cancer, its symptoms, and its treatment was also of great concern to the members of the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC), an organization founded in 1913 with ten doctors and five laypeople, when the disease was not widely talked about and had high mortality rates. The organization’s mission was to bring the looming specter of cancer out of the shadows and into the light, and to do that, they wrote numerous articles in both popular periodicals and academic journals, produced their own bulletin, Campaign Notes, and recruited doctors around the United States to educate patients (American Cancer Society [ACS], 2019).

While these efforts helped, they only involved about 15,000 people across the country by 1935 (ACS, 2019). In 1936, the new campaign was born to get volunteers to help spread vital information: the Women’s Field Army. The ASCC specifically recruited women “because the types of cancer that strike women hardest—cancer of the uterus and breast—may be cured in seventy per cent of the cases if taken in time” (New York City Cancer Committee [NYCCC], 1936).

ASCCC_HospitalServiceProgramOfTheWomensFieldArmy_1942_April1942_watermark

Some of the Women’s Field Army in Service, April 1942. American Society for the Control of Cancer (1942). Hospital service program of the Women’s Field Army: The American Society for the Control of Cancer, Inc. [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Author.

Among other educational literature, the ASCC produced pamphlets promoting the Women’s Field Army. One item from 1936, used to recruit members, tells the story of a woman who started to suspect she might have cancer based on the New York City Cancer Committee’s materials, such as billboards, subway cards, and editorials in the newspaper (NYCCC, 1936). After learning more and eventually receiving the treatment she needs, she joins the Women’s Field Army so that she, too, can be a “crusader in the fight against cancer.” Other pages in the pamphlet emphasize the critical role that various women have played in helping others receive the care they need, from Maud Slye’s cancer research to Dr. Elizabeth Hurdon, founder of the Marie Curie Hospital in London (NYCCC, 1936).

NYCCC_ForAllWomen_1936_MadameCurieMaudSlye_watermark

Short descriptions of Marie Curie’s and Maud Slye’s research. New York City Cancer Committee (1936). For all women: Presented by the Women’s Field Army of the American Society for the Control of Cancer [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Author.

A wartime NYCCC pamphlet encourages different divisions of the Women’s Field Army to set up hospital service programs as a part of the War Service Program, and describes their challenges and triumphs. The preparation and use of surgical dressings and bandages, which the Women’s Field Army determined were greatly needed, are explained in detail, from production to transportation (American Society for the Control of Cancer, 1942).

NYCCC_ForAllWomen_1936_OrganizationPlan_watermark

Map of the organization plan of the NYC Cancer Committee divisions of the Women’s Field Army. American Society for the Control of Cancer (1942). Hospital service program of the Women’s Field Army: The American Society for the Control of Cancer, Inc. [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Author.  NYAM Collection.

Divisions and programs like Women’s Field Army greatly expanded cancer awareness; the organization is credited with increasing the number of individuals involved in cancer control from 15,000 to at least 150,000 in three years (ACS, 2019). Although the American Society for the Control of Cancer changed direction after World War II (you may know it better now as the American Cancer Society) and the Army no longer exists, it serves as an important reminder of how a group of determined volunteers can change the way we think of, and treat, cancer—or indeed any disease—today.

References

American Cancer Society (2019). Our history. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/about-us/who-we-are/our-history.html

American Society for the Control of Cancer (1942). Hospital service program of the Women’s Field Army: The American Society for the Control of Cancer, Inc. [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Author.

New York City Cancer Committee (1936). For all women: Presented by the Women’s Field Army of the American Society for the Control of Cancer [Pamphlet]. New York, NY: Author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s