Dr Helen Sexton's Case Notebook from the Hospital Australien de Paris, 46 Rue du Dr Blanche, Auteuil, Paris XVI
Helen Sexton (b.1862, d.1950)
In the first few weeks of World War I, women doctors throughout the British Empire attempted to enlist and offer their services to the Allied medical corps. But military officials everywhere declined their offers.
Women doctors responded to official discouragement by creating their own opportunities. Melbourne’s Dr Helen Sexton set up her own military hospital,at Auteuil in July 1916. Sexton embodied the determination of the first women doctors to access medical education and practice in Melbourne. In the 1880s the doors of the University of Melbourne’s medical school were closed to women, but Helen Sexton and Lilian Alexander overcame this obstacle, pressuring the university to admit women in 1887.Sexton became the school’s third female graduate, in 1892, and developed a considerablereputation for her surgical skills when, from 1897 to 1910, she headed the operating theatre at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Hospital, which she had helped found in 1896. Travelling in England in August 1914, she immediately offered her surgical expertise, at her own expense,to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), but was rebuffed. Undaunted, she went home to gather the helpers, funds and equipment needed to open a hospital for wounded soldiers,
‘les petits blessés’, in France.
By January 1915 Sexton was raising funds in Melbourne with the help of four friends; all five, plus two nurses from Sydney’s Prince Alfred Hospital, returned to France to open the Hôpital Australien de Paris. This was established with French military status as a branchof Val de Grâce military hospital, in Auteuil in the 16th district of Paris, near the Bois de Boulogne. Set up in a spacious villa, previously a girls’ school, it opened in July 1915 with 21 beds; Helen was appointed médecin majeur by the French military. It operated until early 1916, when Sexton was invited to work as an assistant surgeon at Val de Grâce, which specialised in facial reconstruction surgery. After the war, the French government awarded her the gold Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française, an honour reserved for those who,without legal or military obligation, came to the aid of the injured or acted with exceptional dedication in the presence of the enemy.
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