An Operation at the Military Hospital, Endell Street -
In 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, the women of Britain were still being denied the vote. The parliament, headed by liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, had been largely indifferent to the demands for women’s suffrage. Despite public support, precedents in the colonies,1 bombings, jail terms, hunger strikes, destruction of art, arson, window breaking, graffiti, mass demonstrations, and the trampling death of suffragette Emily Davison under the King’s horse at Epsom in 1913, the government remained firm in its resolve.
In 1888, the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS), Britain’s first nationwide coalition of suffragists, had split into two streams. The relatively moderate stream, opting to use “constitutional means” to effect change, was led by Lydia Becker and Millicent Fawcett. The more militant stream was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters.
Millicent Fawcett, nee Garrett, (later Dame) was the sister of the first woman doctor in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Elizabeth married James Anderson and had three children while continuing her medical practice and a stellar career.2
The eldest child, Louisa, born in 1873, followed her mother’s example and studied medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW), a college founded by her mother. Despite her familial bent, Louisa was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffragist organization founded by the Pankhursts. The slogan of the WSPU was “Deeds, not Words” and its uniform the suffragist purple white and green.
In March 1912, at the age of 39, Louisa was sentenced to six weeks hard labor for smashing the windows of a Knightsbridge house, in protest at a speech made by an anti-suffrage MP. Through the influence of powerful friends and family3 she served only four weeks, but the experience confirmed her commitment to her cause.4
Her companion and colleague, Flora Murray, also trained at the LSMW. Murray had provided medical care to militants injured in demonstrations. She had worked as a medical officer in the Belgrave Hospital for Children and as an anesthetist at the Chelsea Hospital for Women. In 1912, Anderson and Murray founded their own hospital, the Women’s Hospital for Children, also known as the Harrow Road Children’s Hospital. While providing health care to working class children, they also gave other women doctors the opportunity to work in pediatrics, previously denied to women.5
War generated very different responses from within the suffrage movement. Murray and Anderson had already left the WSPU, disenchanted with the Pankhurst leadership. The WSPU immediately ceased agitation and directed its efforts to the war effort. Murray and Anderson chose to assist both the war effort and the suffrage cause by directly entering the arena. Less than six weeks after Britain entered the war on the 4th August 1914, the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC), staffed entirely by LSMW graduates and founded by Drs Murray and Anderson, started service.6
Experience with the British Government made them fully aware of the likelihood of rejection of official status by the British War Office, so Drs. Murray and Anderson applied directly to the French for permission to set up their service. Subsequently they successfully ran voluntary military hospitals from the Hotel Claridge in Paris and at Wimereaux on the Channel coast. Here they received the wounded direct from the front.
The medicine these women had practiced as civilians bore no resemblance to their wartime workload. Warfare presented them with head wounds, compound fractures, amputations, abdominal wounds, massive infection, and shellshock.
In 1915, responding to favorable reports and the need to repatriate the overwhelming numbers of wounded British soldiers, Sir Arthur Keogh, Director General of the Army Medical Service, requested their return to Britain to run a large military hospital under the auspices of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).
The 520 bed hospital at Endell Street was commanded by Lt Colonel Anderson, the Chief Surgeon, and Lt Colonel Murray, doctor in charge. The staff made no secret of their militancy, and though, radical for the time as it was run by women, it served only men. By mid May 1915, the hospital had 15 medical officers, 36 nurses, 80 orderlies, volunteers and support staff as well as an RAMC detachment of 21 men.7 Its motto was to exactly echo the WSPU suffragist creed - "Deeds, not words." In fact, both Murray and Anderson wore their WSPU badge whenever in WHC uniform, and the WSPU provided financial support.8
It was expected that the venture would fail within six months, and indeed the hospital survived initially only because of the direct patronage of Sir Alfred Keogh and the support of their LSMW network. Though funded by the army, the hospital was largely left on its own. The Endell Street Military Hospital regarded itself as no different from any other official military hospital. It was not willing to be identified as a women’s operation, or confused with “other hospitals run by non-professional women.”9 Indeed the staff were expected to excel at their work. As American nurse Marion Dickerman reported:
We had this drilled into us: you have not only got to do a good job, but you have to do a superior job. What would be accepted from a man will not be accepted from a woman. You have to do better.10
Nevertheless the hospital was quite different from other military hospitals. Fresh flowers, standard lamps, colored bedcovers, a large library, and an active entertainment program, sports days, needlework, lectures and inter-ward Christmas decoration competitions all contributed to an atmosphere which, as Anderson wrote in 1916, "men ... feel rested and refreshed in their spirits by staying here."11
The hospital was feminist, matriarchal, and maternal. Anderson noted that her patients needed far more than just medical attention:
I like still more the opportunity of being a little good to these bruised men. Their minds are full of horrors and it is a help to them to come into a soothing atmosphere with decent food and soft beds and our gentle merry young orderly girls who feed them with cigarettes and write to their mothers and read to them … We are going to have Scotch songs tomorrow instead of hymns and I fear even a gramophone may appear for a short time. All the men are shocked by what they have been through—and normal comforts and little pleasures are a help to them and make them sleep and forget a little.
In her speech upon the opening of Endell Street she said:
After all ... if you have found out the way to treat children—what toys they like, what they like for tea, and what frightens them when going to an operation—you have gone a great way to find out how to run a military hospital. (Laughter) My hospital when complete will have 550 beds—550 large babies requiring a great deal of care, a great deal of understanding, and a certain amount of treatment.12
A central location meant that Endell Street was one of the first hospitals to receive the wounded as they arrived home. Up to 80 soldiers at a time would be received, often taken directly to theatres. The surgeons would perform up to 20 operations each day. At one time at the Endell Street Military Hospital, there were 154 men with compound fractures of the femur on the wards.13 Amputations were a common operation, and the hospital staff became skilled at developing prostheses.14
Drs. Murray and Anderson, along with pathologist Helen Chambers, also managed in this time to publish clinical research outlining their successful treatment of infected suppurating wounds with bismuth-iodine–paraffin paste.15
The good reputation of the WHC hospitals was held in great esteem by the patients themselves. As one soldier wrote, "I got hit by a shell bursting over our trench—in the face, neck and shoulder. I am in one of the very best of hospitals—a ladies' hospital. Lady doctors do all the work—no men at all, so you can guess I am all right."
An Australian soldier wrote to his father, "the Women's Hospital Corps hospital is the best in London. The management is good, and the surgeons take great interest in and pains with their patients. … The whole hospital is a triumph for woman, and incidentally it is a triumph for suffragettes."16
When the Hospital closed in 1919, the WHC was responsible for another three auxiliary hospitals.17 About 26,000 inpatients had been cared for, and another 20,000 outpatients. It had been an extraordinary success.
In 1917, Murray and Anderson were each honored as Commanders of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In the following years, another four doctors from Endell Street were similarly honored. Nevertheless, at war’s end, the Endell Street medical staff were forced to return to women and children’s health.18
Undeniably, the Endell Street operation was hugely successful. In offering high quality health care and training it demonstrated the extraordinary capability of women in roles previously denied them. A precedent had been established and no rational argument could be offered to support ongoing discrimination.
In 1918, women over the age of thirty were enfranchised in Britain, and the flag of the WSPU was flown in the courtyard of the suffrage hospital of Endell Street.19 In 1928 women were granted equal voting rights to men.
Murray and Anderson continued to work in medicine. Murray died in 1923 and Anderson twenty years later. They are buried together, near their home in Buckinghamshire. Their gravestone has carved upon it the epitaph “We have been gloriously happy.”20 These courageous women managed to extract from the horrors of war some goodness for thousands, equity for millions, and happiness and satisfaction for themselves.
- In Australia, women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1902; the last state to deliver the vote to women was Victoria in 1908.
- /www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/garrett_anderson_elizabeth.shtml. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was also Britain’s first female mayor.
- Louisa Garrett Anderson was a woman of independent means, with powerful family connections; daughter of Elizabeth, sister of Dame Millicent, sister of the controller of the Navy, cousin of 2 members of Lloyd George’s cabinet, and of the chief controller of the WAAC, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
- Geddes, Jennian. ‘Deeds and Words in the Suffrage Hospital in Endell Street’ Med History 2007 January 1; 51(1): 79-78 p3
- ibid p3
- ibid p3
- ibid p4
- ibid p7
- ibid p4
- ibid p4
- ibid p15
- ibid p6
- ibid p5
- ibid p5
- ‘The Treatment of Suppurating War Wounds’ Louisa Garrett Anderson and Helen Chambers, ‘The Lancet’ Vol 188, Issue 4853 2 September 1916 p447, and: ‘The Treatment of Septic Wounds with Bismuth-Iodform-Paraffin Paste’ Louisa Garrett Anderson, ‘The Lancet’ Vol 189, Issue 4879 3 March1917 pp 331-333
- Geddes op cit p12
- ibid p4
- ibid p13
- ibid p9