This Millennial’s Alter Ego is a Forgotten Female Surgeon From WWI

Most war reenactors are older men, but 27-year-old Lillian Fehler stands out for designing uniforms that are historically accurate down to the tiniest details.

This Millennial’s Alter Ego is a Forgotten Female Surgeon From WWI

On a sunny morning last September in the grassy hills of Governors Island, New York City, 27-year-old Lillian Fehler woke to the bright, warbling call of a military bugle. She sat up inside her camping tent (an authentic green cloth tent that soldiers actually used during World War I), and laced up her boots. The boots were authentic, too — impeccably restored to mint marching condition by Fehler herself, who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Next, she brushed her striking red hair into a bun, snapped up the highest button on her stiff collar, and ducked out into the light of day, where she was greeted with a historically accurate breakfast, prepared on historically accurate cookware.

The event was Camp Doughboy — a three-day campout for living historians that also welcomed more than 3,000 curious visitors into its midst each day. Even the location had historical resonance: Governors Island (a 15-minute ferry ride from the lower tip of Manhattan) served as an active military base during WWI. Today, the site is cared for by the Trust for Governors Island, and Camp Doughboy is the result of a collaboration between this trust, the National Parks Service, and the WWI Centennial Commission — which was created by Congress in 2013 to “honor, commemorate and educate.” Thirty or so dedicated historical reenactors like Fehler were in attendance, and they had brought an astonishing array of items from their personal museum collections (rusty bicycles! bayonets! binoculars!) to show off to each other over the weekend. Since its start in 2016, Camp Doughboy has grown to be one of the largest historical gatherings in New York City.

“Where did you get this uniform?” a curious woman asked Fehler, while testing the fabric of Fehler’s sleeve between her fingers.

“Hoo boy,” Fehler smiled impishly before launching into a scarily precise explanation. She had stitched her WWI uniform herself using a 1916 dressmaker’s diagram as a guide, and she’d raided antique fairs and obscure corners of the internet to find the original hat and leather belts. She also had a lot of critiques to share about various vendors of rare dyes and chemicals, stemming from her rigorous training as a textile conservationist and theatrical costumer. The results of Fehler’s intense nerdery and hours of labor showed: She was quite arguably the most photogenic living historian to show up at Camp Doughboy. Not only was she a singularly pretty model for her own clothes, but she also stood out for being one of the youngest participants — and one of the only women.

Fehler was performing the persona of Dr. Anna Tjomsland, a real-life surgeon who served in WWI — and whom Fehler had researched meticulously. Dr. Tjomsland was one of about 55 female surgeons to put on a uniform for the American military during the First World War, and one of only 11 to get assigned overseas. Fehler knew this because she had pored through Dr. Tjomsland’s letters and possessions in university library archives. Many of these letters dated back to 1918 and earlier, but to Fehler they remained very much alive. She discovered them while pursuing her master’s degree, and she was annoyed to learn how easily the story of such a unique and independent female doctor could be forgotten by history. Looking around the grassy field at Camp Doughboy, the absence of women in the military history books seems to have translated into the niche community of cosplay and reenactment. Only a handful women showed up to the event in costume.

“There has been some amount of unpleasantness aimed at newer female reenactors and living historians,” Fehler explains. “I have not encountered it as much, personally, but my friends could tell you that there are men who don’t want women involved because they see this as going back to the ‘good old days.’ Of course, the ‘good old days’ didn’t exist, but to them the ‘good old days’ meant men were men and women were below them. I don’t want to come off as saying the men are horrible though. For the most part, the men in historical reenactment are good and supportive.”

Lillian Fehler with her WWI collection of medical equipment and research on Dr. Anna Tjomsland’s military service at Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island, July 4, 2018. (Photo courtesy Lillian Fehler)

This support becomes obvious when you talk to Fehler’s many friends in the community. There is the bugler, for example — Stephen Snyder, a professional trumpet player with the 42nd Infantry Division Band, who has a cheerful smile and a gap between his two front teeth. He collects antique military bugles as a hobby. There’s also Jonathan Bracken, who works at a law office by day. Bracken is the author of a book about WWI history, and in his free time he travels to forgotten battlefields around France, camps out, and walks around picking up old artillery shells, cigarette lighters, boots and watches from the ground. Bracken’s display table, like many at Camp Doughboy, contains a small wealth of fascinating information.

Most living historians only do reenactments as a hobby, but the interest brings together an eclectic community: veterans, librarians, museum curators, actors, students, tinkerers and politicians — even some members of Congress — all united by a shared curiosity and interest in remembering what an unimaginable upheaval a world war can cause for generations upon generations of families.

Dr. Anna Tjomsland’s Army documents from 1918, found by Fehler in the Cornell University archives. (Photo courtesy Lillian Fehler)

“The events of WWI pretty much set in motion the events of the next hundred years, on the world stage, and led to all kinds of changes in technology and society,” says Kevin Fitzpatrick, tour guide, author of eight books on New York City history, and one of the main organizers of Camp Doughboy. “There are endless opportunities for storytelling, which are very fun for us to explore as public historians. “It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.”

“Lillian is one of the best living historians in the city,” Fitzpatrick adds. “It is really impressive that someone in their 20s, with a real skill for creating clothes, would spend their time doing that. Other cosplay fans today are over at the Javits Center, people who have spent hundreds of hours creating Princess Leia slave girl costumes and stuff like that. But here is somebody that is telling the story of a real, breathing person who was in the war.”

The East Coast Doughboys group at the 2019 New York Veterans Day Parade. (Photo by Vincent Gong, via Kevin Fitzpatrick/East Coast Doughboys)

To make ends meet, Fehler works as a customer service associate at a fabric store in Manhattan’s garment district, helping fashion grad students and Broadway theater producers find the right fabrics for their designs. However, that is not a job she wants to do forever.

“I had a pretty good career in theatrical costuming going before I entered my M.A. program,” Fehler explains, with some frustration in her voice. “And now I am finding it almost impossible to either regain that career or start a new one in historic textile conservation.” She goes on to note, though, that employment struggles have irked women throughout history. Even Dr. Anna Tjomsland, a century ago, worked as a housekeeper during her university career.

Fehler in uniform at a Fleet Week celebration at Miller Field, Staten Island, May 2019. (Photo by Kevin Fitzpatrick, via Lillian Fehler)

“Overall, the tides have turned,” Fehler observes. “In WWI there was more of a need for professionals than there were people.”

Today, on the other hand, Fehler faces stiff competition in all of her fields of interest: theatrical costuming, history and textile restoration. Each of these crafts demands a large investment of time and attention, not to mention the cost of materials, and yet it is almost impossible to earn a living doing this kind of work. Fehler is considering going back to school to study medicine.

For now, she is always busy preparing for her next costume and event. Fehler has worn her Dr. Tjomsland ensemble to march on the front lines of New York City’s annual Veterans Day parade multiple years in a row, and she has grown increasingly involved in the Centennial parade’s planning committee. She also regularly frequents events hosted by the New York Historical Society — in full costume. Though Fehler is still a young person figuring out how to navigate the present, she spends every free second of her scholarly life sewing reproductions of the past. Her uncanny talent helps bring history to life for those willing and able to pay attention.