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Ellen La Motte – Backwash of War, 1916, 4th impression – History of Medicine Blog Series

UH490 L235b 1916

“The Great War,” or the “war to end all wars,” prompted a great outpouring of creative material: the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edward Thomas; the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; Willa Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours. From our HOM collection is a lesser known work, but impactful and sharp in the tradition of criticism. Ellen La Motte’s Backwash of War (1916) was a work so cutting in its portrayal of the harsh aspects of conflict that it was banned in Europe, then later in the United States, not to be reprinted until 1934. Ellen La Motte was born in 1873 in Louisville, Kentucky. After an early education in Alexandria, Virginia, she completed the Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses in 1902. She worked for Johns Hopkins, then spent ten months in Italy. She first returned to the United States to work at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri; then returned to Baltimore. La Motte became a specialist in tuberculosis and was the first woman to hold an executive position in the health department.     In 1914, she moved to Paris, socializing with the expatriates, including Gertrude Stein, while seeking work in the war effort. It was during this period on the lines that she witnessed the horrors that inspired her book of sketches, Backwash of War. She left the war in 1916, and would go on to write more socio-critical work, this time on the opium trade in Asia. She published three more books on the subject. During this period she attended hearings of the League of Nations in Switzerland. La Motte represents the unique kind of person that blends a dynamic sense of adventure with a sociological passion for mankind’s betterment. She believed in public health, women’s rights, independence, and justice. She could be said to have been ahead of her time, though perhaps if asked, she would offer that she created her own time, and used it fully.

This information was taken from, where more on La Motte’s career and activities in the women’s suffrage movement can be read.

Call Number

UH490 L235b 1916


Ruth Lilly Medical Library – History of Medicine Rare Books

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Jason Lilly