January 15, 2015 10:21 AM   Subscribe

"Look around Endell Street in Holborn today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago this year, this non-descript spot just off of Shaftesbury avenue was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital staffed, and managed, entirely by women.”
In WW1 Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician) were determined to show that there was a place in military medicine for women. This is the story of the Women’s Hospital Corps and the now-forgotten pioneering London hospital they founded.
posted by Iteki (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
They founded Megaforce?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:16 AM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ha! Thank you so much for that response. I was just about to post about how I feel like an idiot, but I can never read that phrase without thinking of MegaForce.
posted by rabbitroom at 11:30 AM on January 15, 2015

This would be a far better movie. Apparently the BIPP paste is still used in dentistry.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:43 AM on January 15, 2015

This is a hugely important and overlooked piece of history. I researched these women, and their compatriots, a long, long time ago, so this is drawn from rushed and hazy memory... Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Louisa Garrett Anderson's mother, had to fight to be admitted to medical school, and, once accepted by the administration, had to fight against student and public opinion. A number of male students simply refused to attend classes with her because they thought their studies insulted by her presence; a few gallant students decided otherwise, and formed a sort of informal escort so she could go to classes unbothered by those who would harrass her. And as for public opinion? Largely against, and many letters came to the Lancet about this inappropriate woman, complete with innuendo and speculation as to her female nature (references to mannishness or comparisons to Diana were not uncommon, iirc). She herself dressed carefully: attire practical enough that she could do her work and sit in classes, and absolutely feminine enough to be read as absolutely feminine. Garrett Anderson, along with Sophia Jex-Blake in Scotland (and oh, man, there's someone deserving of a FPP), were pioneers in medicine, and paved the way for the possibility of the Endell Street Hospital. That is simply enormous progress within two generations.

It's also significant because Garrett Anderson was part of the suffrage movement -- whose members had recently, and vividly, appeared in the English public's view as *objects* of the medical establishment -- think of the force-feeding of imprisoned huger-striking suffragettes -- rather an as equal partners in it. Founding a military hospital? After having so recently been in opposition to all-male official groups? A direct challenge to all sorts of prejudices and cultural beliefs. Garrett Anderson and Murray reinvented themselves as a part of the warrior class. [In the medical world, women's help was grudgingly tolerated; as male doctors went off to war, they hired women as locum tenens, with the very strong suggestion of giving them these precarious positions under duress. Nor was the War Office grateful for offers of help. As mentioned in the article, the War Office rejected Dr. Elsie Inglis; she went home, smoked a cigarette, and announced to her niece "I know what we'll do May, we'll offer to help the Serbs and the French!"] The unease produced by the thought of wounded soldiers in the hands of suffragists is so well summed up in this, my favorite cartoon on the subject, from Punch: "Eminent Woman Surgeon, who is also an ardent Suffragist (to wounded Guardsman). "Do you know, your face is singularly familiar to me. I've been trying to remember where we've met before." Guardsman. "Well, Mum, bygones be bygones. I was a police constable." " For more reading on the subject, see Flora Murray's "Women as Army Surgeons: being the history of the Women's Hospital Corps in Paris, Wimereux and Endell Street."

The wards of Endell Street were named after female saints -- Stes. Agnes, Barbara, Catherine, etc. to Veronica. The feminist doctors were more pleased by this than the patients. Only one ward was named for a man: The Johnny Walker Ward, a small room in the basement used as "a place of recovery by his patrons and slaves," wrote Murray. And the prominent "Deeds Not Words" stage curtain in the communal rec room made a statement about the hospital's feminist roots as well.

There were surprisingly few problems with the male patients in a hospital staffed by women. One gets the feeling that Words Were Deplloyed. One trouble-maker was sent to talk to the Doctor-in-Charge and came away saying, "I've been up before men, and up before women, and God save us from the women!" It also served as a place to experiment with a new antiseptic treatment, Bipp, which the War Office has been reluctant to try in the field; the women doctors of Endell Street, themselves an experiment, allowed it to be used on the wards -- much to the relief of the patients, as it proved to significantly reduce post-wound infections.

The hospital performed well. But at the close of the war, there was, in a tangible way, even less room for women in military medicine. The War Office, after little debate, concluded that there were some duties of the military doctor that could not be done by women, and Winston Churchill himself, then (iirc) secretary of state for war, declared that the work of medical field unit would be too much of a strain and hardship, and that only a very few women would be fit for it. So: no military commissions for you, ladies. Meanwhile, the locum tenens hired in wartime were let go, not to be hired on again in any capacity, and the British medical profession opined that the real work of women doctors was to promote the health of the nation by going home and having babies.

In short: Suffragist women and passionate professionals serve their country, heal the wounded and sick, demonstrate their competence and organizational skills through deeds, not words, and are told "Thanks, girls, now when are you going to go home and get knocked up for the good of your nation?"

Thanks for the post, Iteki -- fascinating subject.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:11 PM on January 15, 2015 [11 favorites]

Also, this... um, no:
The staff made no effort to hide their suffragist leanings, but neither were they overtly promoted and more than a few soldiers found themselves discussing the cause with the hospital staff. Memorably one surgeon found herself dealing with a wounded soldier who, in civilian life, had been a police officer who had arrested her. With amusement she reminded him of that association later on the ward.

“I wouldn’t have mentioned it Miss!” He commented, embarrassed, after admitting he’d recognised her earlier as well. “We’ll let bygones be bygones.”
The incident mentioned was, as linked above, a satirical cartoon from Punch. Murray reports that some 26,000 patients (from England, Scotland, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand) passed through the wards -- and in only rare cases was the doctors' sex an issue. One patient balked at treatment by women and requested a transfer to another hospital... he then thought better of it, and sent his mother to rescind his words. More often, patients would point out to visitors this or that infamous suffragette among the staff! Murray does say that of all of the patients, (almost) only those from New Zealand and Australia brought up the subject of suffrage and were willing to discuss it. But "more than a few" is overstating the case. (Murray herself describes it as "a propaganda of deeds not of words.")
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:48 PM on January 15, 2015

Thanks for this post; I've been reading about WWI, and I knew nothing about this. (For those who don't know, Endell is pronounced as if written "Endle," with stress on the first syllable.)
posted by languagehat at 1:39 PM on January 15, 2015

*Puts hand up*

I actually wrote this.

(Lapsed is my dumping ground for unedited/expanded versions of stuff I've written elsewhere and for things I want to write about but know there's not a chance of anyone paying me for.)

I completely agree with you MonkeyToes on just how important, and overlooked, this particular area of history is. The research that would ultimately lead to this article started after I spotted the plaque on Endell Street one night and decided to investigate. After even a basic bit of research it became pretty apparent that this was a genuinely important part of British history - medical, military and social - that very few people know about.

And that's an absolute tragedy because what Murray, Garrett Anderson and frankly everyone who served either with the Women's Hospital Corps or at Endell Street achieved in the face of overwhelming hostility and prejudice is absolutely astounding. They're all absolute heroes as far as I'm concerned (as is Dr. Elsie Inglis, who I had to skip over somewhat in the piece itself but who, as you point out, would find her own way to serve as well).

To pick up on a couple of your specific points:

"The incident mentioned was, as linked above, a satirical cartoon from Punch."

For which, as far as I could determine, an unnamed letter writer from the WHC was the source. Indeed Murray herself mentions the incident in Women as Army Surgeons as well. Now of course it is possible that she was simply co-opting the myth at a later date, but on balance I felt (and indeed feel) that the encounter likely actually happened in some form or other.

"But "more than a few" is overstating the case."

You may be right. Here I'll admit I was going slightly more on gut feeling than outright evidence. Part of that feeling though comes from the fact that I've never felt that Murray is an entirely reliable narrator in WAAS on this particular subject. "Deeds not Words" as a mantra was just as important to her in the early twenties when she was writing as it had been when she had been running the WHC and thus, perhaps subconsciously, she tends to downplay the possibility that there was a certain amount of debate happening on the wards (and beyond) as well - something that other sources (such as Garrett Anderson's correspondence and the admittedly small number of private correspondence from soldiers and staffers I've seen) seem to bear out.

To be clear, I'm certainly not saying that any of them were giving secret lectures or that ex-patients were becoming vocal proponents of the suffragist cause on their release. Simply that of those 26,000 that passed through their care I think more likely asked for and received at least a little bit of background on the issues women doctors and surgeons faced than Murray likely ever personally witnessed or at least remembered.

I do admit that's conjecture though. A bit of author's licence in the end, if you'll forgive me for it.

"Garrett Anderson and Murray reinvented themselves as a part of the warrior class. "

I think you put this perfectly. Wish I'd thought of that way of putting it! This is the absolute core of their achievement. More importantly, they damn well knew that was what they needed to do as well. Murray in particular spotted very early on that unless they forced the establishment and the British Army, through gritted teeth if necessary, to accept they were military then anything they accomplished could, and would, be waved away under the banner of "women chipping in to do their bit."

The quasi-military uniforms from early on, Murray's constant fight with the War Office to get her staff onto war-rated salaries and benefits after Endell Street had been established, her constant requests for confirmation, in writing, of her rank equivalency - none of it was about ego or power. It was about denying the Army the ability to later deny that she and her staff were part of its ranks, whether they liked it or not.

I do sometimes wonder though, with sadness, whether that's part of the reason why they never got the public attention post-war that they deserved. They made it impossible for the military establishment to deny their legitimacy, so instead that same establishment simply did its utmost to pretend they'd never existed at all.

There is simply no excuse for that now though. Especially as we mark 100 years since their hospital was founded.

On a less serious note... woooooo! Made the blue again. Thanks Iteki :)
posted by garius at 3:31 PM on January 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

It was about denying the Army the ability to later deny that she and her staff were part of its ranks, whether they liked it or not.

Yes! Agreed.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:50 PM on January 15, 2015

Really cannot recommend enough "Call the Midwife" and its sequels for the history of obstetrics and gynecology and how women's medicine needed women to advocate for it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:12 PM on January 15, 2015

This is a fantastic and tragically overlooked piece of history, but... okay, look. I am pretty sure that you do not get buried in the same grave as someone who predeceased you by twenty years (before which you lived and worked together for years), and carve "We have been gloriously happy" on said grave, if the two of you were just good friends. Like, am I the only one seeing this?
posted by nonasuch at 6:30 PM on January 15, 2015

Like, am I the only one seeing this?

Not at all; they kept quarters together at Ebdell Street, iirc.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:33 PM on January 15, 2015

Endell, sorry; my comment evidently had a stuffy nose.

I am a little out of my depth here on the nature of their relationship, but I can say that a lot of the pushback against women in British medicine in E. Garrett Anderson's time, and then her daughter's, was centered around the idea that women who wanted to pursue medicine as a career could not have been proper (that is, straight) women. A lot of letters to the editor center on this idea, and there were a few end-of-the-19th-century novels featuring arguably-lesbian women doctors. It's conceivable that they simply didn't want to give their prejudiced male colleagues the satisfaction of saying "See? Becoming a doctor damages women, so they shouldn't be given the opportunity!"
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:47 PM on January 15, 2015

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