The Female Doctors Who Fought to Serve in World War I


A riddle from my childhood goes like this: A father and son are injured in a serious car accident, and each is taken to a different hospital. As the boy is being prepped for surgery, the surgeon rushes in and exclaims in horror: “I can’t operate! He’s my son.” How is this possible? That the ludicrously obvious answer — the surgeon is a woman — eluded every member of my family except me, a 12-year-old girl, in 1975, makes the subject and the chronology of Wendy Moore’s new book all the more thrilling.

“No Man’s Land” tells the story of the Endell Street Military Hospital, which treated the casualties of war pouring into London during World War I — and which, except for the occasional male orderly, was staffed entirely by women.

“From the physician who assessed the condition of the patients to the surgeon who inspected their wounds, from the radiologist who ordered X-rays to the pathologist who took swabs, from the dentist who checked their teeth to the ophthalmologist who tested their sight, every one of the doctors was female,” Moore writes.

This was as shocking as it was revolutionary. Female doctors were almost unheard-of. Barred from studying at most institutions except for the London School of Medicine for Women, they were relegated to low-status, low-paying jobs in schools, prisons and asylums; most treated only other women and children. None of the men who would come to the Endell Street hospital had ever been treated by a woman before.

But two pioneering doctors — Louisa Garrett Anderson, a 41-year-old surgeon whose mother, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was the first woman ever to qualify as a doctor in Britain, and Flora Murray, 45, an exacting Scottish anesthesiologist — saw a vacuum, and rushed to fill it. The upending of conventions necessitated by the war, as well as the desperate need for new hospital beds to treat the tens of thousands of injured and sick soldiers converging on London, offered the perfect opportunity, Moore writes, to prove that women were equal to men.

Both women were also passionate suffragists, and the struggle for the vote went hand in hand with the struggle for professional acceptance. (They also lived together, though their careers were so interesting that their sex lives seem almost beside the point.)

Moore outlines the logistical and attitudinal impediments the pair encountered as they set up two hospitals in France at the start of the war and then turned their attention to Endell Street, where their hospital would be housed in a hulking Victorian workhouse that purportedly had inspired the school in “Oliver Twist.” Though they had the blessing of the War Office, not everyone was excited about the prospect of health care performed by people other than men.

“Good God! Women!” one Royal Army Medical Corps colonel sniped, when he met the women at the hospital site during construction (he then flounced out in a huff). Many of the men assigned to the task there were reluctant to help. “Desperate to clear the laundry room of hundreds of damp and filthy mattresses,” Moore writes, “the two women tracked down the official responsible for their removal and refused to let him leave his office for the weekend until he telephoned through the required order.”

But there was little time for messing around. The first casualties arrived in May, 1915, in convoys of up to 80 men at a time; by the end of the first week, all 520 beds were filled. Typically, between 400 and 800 new patients would arrive each month, many needing immediate surgery (much of it performed by Anderson), many with grievously infected wounds, many suffering from acute shell-shock, “more wounded in their minds than in their bodies.”

They had come to a London undergoing radical change, a city full of women doing jobs that always been assigned to men. Soon, even skeptics were praising the skill and competence of Endell Street’s doctors, how they brought compassion as well as expertise to the task. “They are men in the best sense of that word, and yet women in the best sense of that word also,” the society magazine Tatler wrote, straining to express what it was trying to say.

Moore has an eye for a telling detail and a nose for a good character. After the husband of the American actress Elizabeth Robins — a volunteer at the hospital — drowned himself in a fit of depression and jealousy, she regularly fended off suitors of both sexes and, as Moore writes, “once pushed George Bernard Shaw out of a taxi into the gutter.”

One of the orderlies smuggled an Alsatian puppy out of France, possibly in her bra, and named it “Eepie” after Ypres, the Belgian battle site. After learning needlework in his convalescence at the hospital, one patient, a coal miner, produced “a picture depicting a basket of fruit.” The weather was so grim in the winter of 1916 that Cynthia Asquith, the daughter-in-law of the former prime minister, “was reduced to wearing her fur coat at breakfast.”

Exhausted, worked to the bone, forced to improvise and develop new techniques on the fly, the women proved themselves capable of handling nearly everything thrown at them during the war. It is hard, in the spring of 2020, to read about the thing that brought them to the point of despair. It was the Spanish flu, which came in three waves during 1918 and 1919 and killed between 3 and 6 percent of the world’s population.

The details seem wearyingly familiar. The illness began with mild symptoms until victims drowned in their own fluids, bleeding from their lungs. “Entire families were struck down at once,” Moore writes. “Buses and trams were canceled for lack of staff; emergency services were dangerously stretched as police, fire and ambulance workers fell ill; and hospitals struggled to cope as nurses and doctors collapsed alongside their patients.” There was no treatment, no protocol for the doctors to follow.

But that pandemic finally passed, as this one will, too, and life began again. The Endell Street hospital closed in October 1919. And though most of the female doctors were cruelly sidelined in the postwar years as men poured back into the city and the hospitals, the tide had started to turn. Some women in the United Kingdom got the right to vote in 1918; the rest in 1928.

Meticulously researched, written with élan and wit, Moore’s account comes at just the right time. We’re not in a war, but it’s not difficult to understand what it felt like in London as World War I raged on. We are so vulnerable. So many of the things we take for granted — our jobs, our health, our ability to live our lives freely and openly, our trust in our leaders to do the right thing — are in jeopardy.

But “No Man’s Land” reminds us that people can rise to an occasion, that the biggest advances — for medicine, for humanity — can come during the toughest times, as a result of the toughest times. It reminds us that great courage and great ingenuity are possible even when the world feels very dark.



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