Katharine Symonds Furse was the fourth daughter of Victorian scholar, critic, and historian John Addington Symonds and his wife Janet Catherine Symonds (née North). Young Katharine spent most of her childhood in Davos, Switzerland where Symonds had relocated the family in search of a better climate for his tuberculosis. In 1900 she married the painter, Charles W. Furse who also suffered from tuberculosis. They had two sons, Peter and John Paul. Charles Furse died of tuberculosis in 1904.
Katharine Furse became an active member of a London VAD in 1909. After the outbreak of war, Furse led the first VADs to France where they set up a Rest Station at Boulogne. At that Rest Station, they changed dressings and provided food and hot beverages for trainloads of soldiers in transit. Furse returned to London in January 1915 to take charge of the Central VAD Headquarters office of the British Red Cross VADs at Devonshire House, Picadilly. She became Commandant-in Chief of the BRCS's Women's VADs and in charge of the Joint Women's VAD which consisted of VADs from both the BRCS and St. John Ambulance Association and Brigade. Furse fought for fuller participation for women and instituted the VAD General Service plan which provided paying jobs for women in many capacities including, food service, housekeeping, clerical and ambulance services. In 1917 she was made a Dame of the British Empire but left the VADs because of a continuing conflict over control and definition of the role of women. Under her direction, the number of female VADs grew dramatically; there were more than 90,000 by the time of the Armistice.
Almost immediately after leaving the VADs, Furse was asked by the British Admiralty to plan a naval organization for women which became the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRENS). She remained the head of the WRENS until they were demobilized in 1919.
After the war, Katharine Furse continued her pioneering work in women's service. She worked closely for years with the Girl Guides and for ten years was Director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. She died in London in 1952.