Nurses wait on patients in hospital beds.

AFS and American Volunteerism in World War I

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Nicole J. Milano, Head Archivist and Historical Publications Editor at the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. Recently Nicole’s research brought her to NLM to explore the history of volunteerism from World War I to the present for a series of lesson plans in celebration of the AFS centennial. This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

Informal portrait of Nicole Milano with bookshelves in the background.
Nicole Milano
Photo by Axel Jansen

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, staff at the American Hospital of Paris opened a military hospital (also referred to as an “ambulance”) to accommodate a growing number of patients coming back from the Front. The new civilian-run facility, known as the American Ambulance Hospital, was situated in the Lycée Pasteur, an unfinished school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Classrooms and other spaces were transformed into hospital wards and offices. Classrooms held eight beds a piece, and the gymnasium was turned into two large wards containing about 35 beds each.  The American Ambulance Hospital had a great reputation among the French, especially with soldiers who convalesced there. The high quality of service provided by the Hospital was due in part to the large number of American volunteers who served there as ambulance drivers, doctors, and nurses.

A nurse smiles down at a man in a wheelchair with a bandaged leg and a straw hat.
An American nurse talking to a French patient at Red Cross Hospital No. 1, the former American Ambulance Hospital
National Library of Medicine #a011418

One of the more famous volunteers at the Hospital was A. Piatt Andrew, a former Director of the U.S. Mint and assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. Andrew arrived as a volunteer at the Hospital in early 1915 and soon became Inspector General of the Hospital’s Transportation Committee. In April 1915 he negotiated an agreement with the French military to have some ambulance drivers from the Hospital serve closer to the front lines of battle. This group of ambulance drivers came to be known as the American Ambulance Field Service (later known as the “American Field Service” or “AFS”), and was the largest American ambulance corps serving overseas prior to the entry of the United States into the war. The 2,500 volunteer drivers evacuated more than 400,000 casualties during the war.

Today, the organization that began as the American Ambulance Field Service is known as AFS Intercultural Programs, a non-profit intercultural learning organization focusing primarily on student exchange. In 2014, AFS sent 12,222 students on exchange programs to 102 countries. AFS relies heavily on 40,000 volunteers worldwide, who work on efforts from policy development to serving as points of contact for AFS students and liaisons with host schools.

Interior ward of Red Cross Hospital No. 1. National Library of Medicine #a011420
Interior ward of Red Cross Hospital No. 1.
National Library of Medicine #a011420

As one way to commemorate its centennial and long history of volunteerism, AFS is coordinating a number of projects on the history of volunteerism from World War I to the present day, including a series of lesson plans that will be made freely available online by the end of 2015. The National Library of Medicine has been an important component of the historical research process for this curriculum. In particular, the NLM’s collections document the activities of the American Red Cross in France. After the United States declared war in April 1917, some of the smaller volunteer groups or organizations were absorbed into larger-scale groups such as the Red Cross. As one example, the Prints and Photographs Collection contains photographs of American Red Cross Hospital No. 1, which was the former American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. This important history of World War I volunteerism from the earliest years of the war, progressing through the American Ambulance Field Service and American Ambulance Hospital, to the work of the Red Cross and other groups that arrived overseas after April 1917, will be included in the curriculum currently in development by AFS.

For more information about the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs, please visit


  1. I’ve never heard of this Field Service before. It is not well-known, but certainly stands as one of the major volunteer services in our history. Very interesting. Thanks.

  2. Very nice and thank you! Seriously wounded on 8 Oct 1918 at St. Etienne a Arnes (142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division), my husband’s grandfather recuperated in Red Cross Hospital No. 1. Info about the wards and volunteers at that time would be interesting. I understand that that Alma Clarke volunteered here about that time. We do have a Thanksgiving menu for patients in Hospital No. 1.

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