An ECBC 100th anniversary feature: women played expanding roles in history of ECBC

Local women employed assembling masks at the Edgewood mask factory between the wars.

When the Edgewood Arsenal was created during World War I, the primary roles of women on the installation were as secretaries in various offices and as nurses in the post infirmary. One hundred years later, the roles of women at ECBC have expanded to equal the roles of men.

Women perform the entire span of duties at ECBC, from conducting laboratory research to testing chemical and biological defense solutions to managing the organization’s research and development mission.

In the Beginning:

An observer of the Edgewood Arsenal headquarters during World War I wrote of the women there, “All of them were filled with eagerness and enthusiasm as they entered the service of their government at a time when their services were indeed needed.”

Typical of these highly dedicated women was Elizabeth Hunt, chief nurse at Edgewood Arsenal. She was quoted in The Baltimore Sun in 1919 saying, “Our first duty is to report for gas mask drill, for we are informed that at any moment an explosion might occur and the nurses must be prepared to meet the emergency. And so, after many drills, we become expert at adjusting that which seems at first a very cumbersome and impossible mask.”

Hunt and her nursing staff also had to be ready to treat chemical-related causalities, and starting in 1918, treat influenza cases as the Spanish flue of 1918 and 1919 caused more deaths around the world than the war itself.

After the war, Edgewood Arsenal established a gas mask factory. The masks were hand sewn and laboriously assembled. For decades, the arsenal was a major employer of women from Harford County because they were needed in the Army gas mask factory.

World War II:

The role of women at the Edgewood Arsenal, then called the Chemical Warfare Center, expanded again with the outbreak of World War II. After the start of World War II in 1941, the Women’s Army Corps, called WACs, arrived in 1943. The WACs went to work testing weapons and equipment, and working in the chemical laboratories.

Nurses at the Edgewood infirmary undergo mask drill during World War II.

During the same period another wave of female workers arrived. Known as the WOWs, for Women Ordnance Workers, they proofed weapons, tested vehicles, and performed most of the functions necessary to provide the Soldiers in the field with the best equipment. All of these women, along with the nurses and office workers who had always been there, had to undergo gas mask training and go through the gas chamber where they were exposed to tear gas.

Edgewood also had its own version of the WOWs. They managed and operated the post’s water filtration plant, the first plant run entirely by women at Aberdeen Proving Ground during the war. Another woman, Margaret Snell, had the unique job of blowing glass during World War II. She made many of the specialty items used by the chemists.

Women provided charitable contributions, too. The Red Cross Gray Ladies was formed in 1941. They provided recreation, entertainment, and library facilities to the sick Soldiers at Edgewood. Mrs. Ray Avery, the wife of the Post Commander, served as the Chairperson of the Gray Ladies.

In 1945, an enormous explosion killed 12 female munition workers and injured 57 others at Edgewood. One of the plant workers, Sarah Creswell, helped rescue some of those injured and received an award. Her Certificate of Exceptional Civilian Service read, “In recognition of her outstanding bravery on 25 May 1945 at Edgewood Arsenal, MD., when she aided fellow employees to safety during a serious explosion. By her fearless action with utter disregard for personal safety she saved the lives of fellow workers and gave assistance to the injured.”

“Women play vital roles in today’s army; they are leaders overseas and at home; they are soldiers, army civilians, as well as family members who are all critical members of the army team.”

The Post-War Years to Today:

Edgewood Arsenal, renamed the Army Chemical Center in 1946, pioneered computers in the course of pursuing its chemical warfare defense mission. Women were there, too. Women mathematicians calculated complicated firing tables for the Ordnance Department. With the completion of the first modern computer, known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, in 1947, women worked with what was seen as a new marvel. Winifred Jonas was the first female mathematician to work on ENIAC.

After the merger of Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal in 1971, women moved into leadership roles and as specialists in their fields. Major General Lee Price, for example, was the first female program executive officer. Today, women serve in all levels of leadership and responsibility at Aberdeen Proving Ground and ECBC. ECBC has seen female leadership at the SES level, and throughout the Center women can be found among the associate directors, branch chiefs and division chiefs.

However, the role of ECBC in advancing opportunities for women is but one chapter in a larger story of the progressive role of the U.S. Army as a whole. The Army opened all non-combat and non-hazardous military occupational specialties to women in 1972 and made all military occupational specialties available to women 2016.

The Army graduated the first co-educational class from the U.S. Military Academy in 1976, and graduated its first two women from Army Ranger School in 2015. The Army assigned the first woman to an Army special operations unit in December 2016. An official U.S. Army statement on March 1, 2017 read in part, “Women play vital roles in today’s Army; they are leaders overseas and at home; they are Soldiers, Army civilians, as well as family members who are all critical members of the Army team.”

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The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is a part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Material Command.

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