Women As Army Surgeons

3D front cover of Women as Army Surgeons by Flora Murray‘It would be difficult to put into words the pride with which the Women’s Hospital Corps served their country in the Great War under the only woman Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army.’

Among the huge numbers of plays, documentaries, histories, new interpretations, reinterpretations, and all sorts of other material relating to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, consider this account, by its ‘Médecin en chef’, of the first military hospital organised and run by women.

The opening quotation is from the preface of the book, by Beatrice Harraden, writer and suffragist, and the lieutenant-colonel in question was the book’s author, Flora Murray (1869–1923). Murray was one of the small but growing number of fully qualified woman doctors who had followed the pioneering lead of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) who by determination and patience had accumulated medical qualifications, culminating in an MD from the university of Paris in 1870, and admission to the British Medical Association three years later.

In the next generation, the education of women doctors in Britain was resisted slightly less, and Elizabeth’s daughter Louisa (1873–1943) was trained at the London School of Medicine for Women (founded by her mother and other women doctors with the support of T.H. Huxley). She was a suffragist (her aunt was Millicent Garrett Fawcett), and briefly imprisoned for her activities in 1912. She had met Flora Murray at the London School, they became close friends, founding together the Women’s Hospital for Children near London.

When Mrs Pankhurst told her followers to stop attacks on the government and get behind the war effort, the two decided to create a military hospital, entirely staffed by women. However, they knew what they were up against: ‘As militant suffragists they had had dealings with the Home Office, and had gained an insight into the cherished prejudices and stereotyped outlook of officials.’

Instead, therefore, of offering their services to the War Office, ‘which would only have meant to court a rebuff’, they approached the French embassy, who sent them to the French Red Cross in London. The French military were desperately short of medical resources, and ‘a fully equipped surgical unit, comprised of women doctors and trained nurses’ seemed like a godsend. Formal acceptance from Paris was received, and the team was asked to be ready to start on 1 September 1914, leaving them 12 days ‘in which to raise the funds required, find a staff and purchase the equipment and all the stores that would be needed’.

How this was all done, and how the Women’s Hospital Corps got a uniform, and hastily adapted buildings, first in Paris, then in Wimereux near Boulogne and finally in Endell Street, Covent Garden, in the heart of London (and official status as part of the British Army), is described in fascinating detail.

Murray’s book is a mixture of hard-headed facts and statistics alongside moving individual stories. There is humour too, not least at the expense of Army rules and regulations: these came round as ‘purple papers’, named after the colour of ink they were written on, and were posted in the staff room for their entertainment value. One reminded surgeons to sterilise syringes with ‘a little warm oil’ before using them; another advised not to amputate a right arm unless it was really necessary. Another source of humour was the visitors: a ‘lady’ turned up at the gate wanting to visit her father’s footman, David: she didn’t know whether that was his first or second name, but he was in a Scottish regiment…

Floods of visitors were quite a problem, as so many people wanted to observe for themselves the bizarre phenomenon of women dressing wounds, carrying stretchers, and even performing operations without having a fit of the vapours. One (male) French journalist went into paroxysms and had to be removed after seeing with his own eyes Dr Garrett Anderson, the chief surgeon, cutting into a patient.

The hospital was pioneering in many other ways than in the gender of its staff. Professor Morrison of Durham asked the team to trial his ‘Bipp’ – Bismuth iodine paraffin paste – which could be used to keep wounds sterile without the constant dressing and re-dressing of wounds with bandages, which took up so much staff time and could be extremely painful for the patients. The trials proved so successful that the War Office eventually adopted the use of Bipp in all its hospitals.

Another novel aspect of the women’s approach was to try to keep everyone cheerful: they had coloured blankets and decorated walls in the wards; Christmas and other holidays were celebrated with enthusiasm. Orchestras and choirs frequently performed in the open square below the hospital, while Beatrice Harraden, who put together a library for the patients to use, pulled strings among her acquaintance in the theatrical world so that singers and comics would come and entertain them. (A few convalescents were invited to Buckingham Palace, and said they had had a very nice time, but of course they’d seen most of the ‘acts’ laid on for their entertainment already at the hospital.) And for those patients who could not move, ‘electrophones’ were placed by their beds so that they could listen to music or drama through headphones.

Just two out of very many interesting sidelights on the war and its context.  There were wards for women at the top of the building: ‘The recruiting for the women’s units had not always been prudent, and many women were sent home as unfit … But the greater number of the patients sent home from France were debilitated, or anaemic and fatigued by long hours and an unaccustomed diet, and needed rest and good conditions to make them ready for service again.’ During the influenza pandemic of 1918–19, the 573-bed hospital was filled with extra beds, but many new patients might arrive each day, and ‘the mortality was tremendous’. In November/December 1918, twenty-four patients died; in February 1919, thirty. ‘The hospital was accustomed to a death rate of eight per thousand per annum, and was aghast over three deaths in one day’: a reminder that the ‘Spanish flu’ was responsible worldwide for many more deaths than the war itself.

At the end of the war, the hospital was gradually closed down, and the buildings repurposed. The team was dispersed, and most of the non-professional staff (the clerks and the orderlies whose hard work and enthusiasm had been vital to the team’s success) returned to being wives or daughters. Flora Murray argued vigorously for the success at Endell Street to be used as a model for the planned medical section of ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’, but saw her ideas mostly ignored. As a memorial to the women’s effort, a bed was endowed at the Women’s Hospital for Children, and some of the most touching moments in the book are provided by the notes accompanying donations by former patients or by relatives of those who had died at Endell Street.

It’s arguable that the Women’s Hospital Corps was a flash in the pan: in the extreme circumstances of war, women were given scope for their talent and experience, but would be required to ‘make way for the men’ at the cessation of hostilities. Nevertheless, a small breach was made in the dyke, and for some women the experience provided not only ‘an occasion for service’ but also ‘great professional opportunities’. It’s a story that deserves to be remembered.


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3 Responses to Women As Army Surgeons

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