Dr. Frances Lois Willoughby becomes the first female Doctor in the U.S. Navy.
Frances Willoughby was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1905 to Frank and Annie Smith Willoughby. The family moved to Pitman, New Jersey, and Frances was educated at Woodbury High School before entering Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1923. Her elder brother Edwin graduated a year earlier as a member of the Class of 1922. While at the College, the younger Willoughby was active in Wilohea, the McIntire Literary Society, and the French Club; she also participated in basketball and volleyball. In addition, she was noted for her musical abilities at the piano and as a member of the Glee Club. After graduation in 1927, Willoughby taught in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey in order to earn enough money to enter medical school. Receiving her medical degree from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in 1938, she served her residency at the Traverse City State Hospital, a mental institution in Michigan.
Towards the end of her residency, the Second World War erupted, the U.S. government solicited young doctors to enlist. Although she was exempt because she worked for a state hospital, Willoughby joined the Navy nonetheless in 1944. However, because she was a woman, she was not permitted to join the regular Navy, and so was assigned to the Naval Reserve. She was commissioned as a lieutenant and was stationed at the National Navy Center at Bethesda, Maryland. Treating female patients from the auxiliary branches of the armed services, Willoughby helped to administer the first electric shock treatment ever given at Bethesda. She later gave neuropsychiatric examinations to navy veterans in Washington, D.C., thus expanding her practice to male patients as well.
In October 1948, Willoughby was sworn in as the first woman doctor to serve in the regular Navy, and for the following year was the only woman doctor in the U.S. armed forces. In 1950, she became the first woman with the permanent rank of commander, and also took the position of staff psychiatrist at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. Here she served for another fourteen years before retiring in 1964. During that time she achieved the rank of captain. Interestingly, it is possible that, had she delayed her retirement by another year or two, she could have become one of the first women admirals since shortly thereafter Congress passed legislation allowing women to be promoted to that rank.
Willoughby retired to her family home in Pitman and established a private practice while serving on the staff of the local hospital. During her career, she was active in the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Women’s Association. In 1981, she was awarded the Benjamin Rush Award, the nation’s most prestigious award in psychiatry. Frances Lois Willoughby died on May 13, 1984 at the age of 78. She never married. (See Francis Lois Willouby (1906-1984) Dickinson College)