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'Flappers' who found a cure for sexism

‘Flappers’ who found a cure for sexism: When two high-society suffragettes set up a hospital in WWI their first patients were convinced they would die, but their skill and care cut out the cancer of misogyny (for a while)

A man and his son are in a terrible car crash and are rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. 

In the operating theatre, a gowned surgeon, scalpel in hand, takes one look at the face of the patient and exclaims: ‘I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son!’ 

How could this be? This classic brainteaser – so old it has whiskers on it – has a simple enough answer, though, for the un-woke and the unenlightened, it could (and still can) take a while for the penny to drop. The surgeon, of course, is a woman. 

The question relies on the assumption, instinctively and casually made since time immemorial, that those at the cutting edge of medicine are invariably men. 

Think back to the 1950s and those hugely popular Doctor In The House films in which the medical students, led by handsome Dirk Bogarde, are pipe-smoking, rugby-playing, heavy-boozing hearties, all intent on emulating the irascible but naturally brilliant surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt. 

Women feature as nurses or dippy girlfriends. Which is pretty well precisely how the medical profession saw them in real life in those not-so-distant days. 

Things have changed since, though not as much as we might imagine. Research reveals that, though women easily outnumber men in general practice, the men hold sway in hospital positions, and particularly so in prestigious areas such as surgery. 

TONY RENNELL: Women feature as nurses or dippy girlfriends. Which is pretty well precisely how the medical profession saw them in real life in those not-so-distant days

A recent study into the plight of female surgeons said they faced blatant discrimination, and not just on the part of the ‘old boys’ themselves but from the public as well. 

‘Some patients,’ it concluded, ‘don’t trust females because there is a general perception, dominated by unconscious bias, that this is a male-dominated field, a man’s profession.’ 

This is a situation that just over a century ago was all too familiar to the tiny band of pioneering women who, during World War I, defied convention and the arrogance of male doctors to break down exactly the same prejudice. 

Their story is told in a fascinating new book by Wendy Moore, tracing how medical pioneers Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray together founded and ran the Endell Street Military Hospital in London’s West End, and staffed it almost entirely with women.

It was known, disparagingly at first, as the ‘Suffragettes Hospital’ and the ‘Flappers Hospital’ but quickly came to be recognised by the soldiers who were treated there as the best hospital in London.   

Some who arrived there on stretchers from the battlefronts of the Somme, Ypres and Gallipoli – wounded, weary, frightened and in pain – were convinced that, because women (and not just any women but man-hating suffragettes) were in charge, they were doomed. 

They must have been classified as hopeless cases and sent there to die. They quickly changed their minds when the treatment and tender care they received proved not just exemplary but better than anywhere else. 

Anderson and Murray, both in their forties and hailing from wealthy professional backgrounds, were a formidable and often frightening couple, devoted to each other and to the cause of female emancipation. 

Louisa was the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor despite the medical establishment putting every obstacle in her way. Following in her mother’s footsteps in the 1890s, she faced the same abusive and dismissive attitudes and only managed to become a doctor at all by studying at a separate women’s school of medicine. 

It had only been recognised by the medical establishment in 1876 in the face of objections that women could not hope to be physically robust enough to carry out surgery – and, anyway, their brains were too small for the complex work involved. 

TONY RENNELL: A recent study into the plight of female surgeons said they faced blatant discrimination, and not just on the part of the ‘old boys’ themselves but from the public as well

Nonetheless, she fought her way through to qualify, then trained as a surgeon in Paris and the United States, only to find that no mainstream hospital in London would give her a job. 

She had to work in charity hospitals before setting up her own small private practice. Flora, daughter of a Scottish laird, began in nursing and moved to doctoring but faced similar objections to her choice of career.

She and Louisa met when they were both caught up in Emily Pankhurst’s militant and violent suffragette campaign for women’s right to vote. The more impulsive and outgoing Louisa was an activist, leading from the front, speaking at mass demonstrations and withholding income tax. 

Flora, calmer by nature but even more forceful a personality, ran first-aid posts for demonstrators attacked by the police, hid those on the run from the law and helped suffragettes released from prison and suffering from the effects of hunger strikes and force-feeding. 

They fell into each others’ arms, brought together by their shared beliefs, their medical expertise and by love, setting up home together in 1914 and living as a married couple for the rest of their lives. 

When war broke out later that year, they were eager to offer their medical skills to the war effort. This way they could gain the sort of high-level surgical experience so far denied to them. It was a chance too to prove that women doctors were every bit as good as men. But they decided not to approach the British army or the government. 

Another woman surgeon had tried that, only to be rebuffed with a gruff, ‘My good lady, just go home and sit still.’ 

Instead they lobbied the French embassy in London and offered to organise a private surgical unit to work in France, where the fighting was taking place. 

The embassy referred them to the French Red Cross, who grabbed at the opportunity. Anderson and Murray cadged funds from family, friends and fellow suffragettes and within a fortnight had raised enough money to buy medicines, equipment, camp beds and blankets to send them on their way. 

They were also inundated with applications from young women of similar backgrounds to theirs to serve alongside them as nurses and orderlies, for no pay. 

On the morning of September 15, 1914, the first 16 members of the Women’s Hospital Corps, all dressed alike in brown ankle-length skirts and belted, button-through tunics, assembled at Victoria Station to board the train for France. 

The great and risky adventure to dramatically push forward the cause of women in medicine was on track and under way. The irony was not lost that militant suffragettes who just months before were fighting hammer and tongs with the male establishment in the cause of equality were now putting themselves in the firing line to save the very men who thought them inferior and tried to keep them down. 

In a commandeered hotel on the Champs Elysees in Paris they set up shop, organising wards, beds and an operating theatre in double-quick time. 

Almost immediately, they were taking in casualties from the fighting, 50 at first, then a hundred. Anderson and Murray – who until now had only ever operated on children and women with gynaecological problems – put aside their shock at their first sight of terrible battlefield wounds, donned their surgical gowns and went to work fixing shattered limbs, gaping head wounds and pierced intestines. 

The hospital was an instant success. Sceptical officers from the Royal Army Medical Corps came to look round and gloat but went away impressed by its hard work, efficiency and by the small feminine touches that gave it a homely feel that was missing in military establishments. 

They saw with their own eyes that the staff were universally adored by the men in their care, battle-scarred Tommies cheered up by being looked after by women, not recoiling in horror and embarrassment, as the top brass had reckoned. 

Anderson and Murray got not only the nod of approval but a salute of praise – plus War Office funds to back their work. At last, they were accepted, showing with their surgical skills and the gentle treatment delivered by their all-female nurses and orderlies that women really could do the job every bit as well as men. 

Anderson, in turn, mellowed in her attitude to men. 

‘For years,’ she reported, ‘I had seen only their worst side, and now I am seeing a splendid side of courage and self-sacrifice.’ 

She wasn’t totally forgiving of the opposite sex, however. 

When a female anaesthetist on her staff announced she was getting married, she exclaimed: ‘You poor girl. I am very sorry for you!’ 

She and Murray now attracted the ultimate accolade from the military establishment – they were asked by Sir Alfred Keogh, the army’s most senior doctor, to set up a major military hospital in London for the constant stream of British casualties being sent home from France. They would have a totally free hand in running it. 

And, apart from a handful of men as back-up in case of trouble, it would be staffed solely by women. A former workhouse near Covent Garden was put at their disposal, a bleak hulk of a place strewn with rubble and ranged round a dingy courtyard. 

It had to be completely renovated, the padded cells and iron chains removed, and lifts installed, to create 17 wards, two operating theatres, an X-ray room and so on. 

The old buffer of a colonel in charge of the conversion was deliberately obstructive. 

‘Good God! Women!’ he exploded, displaying the same dismissive attitude they had encountered from men most of their careers. 

But Endell Street, once finished, brightly painted, equipped and staffed with 14 doctors and 29 nurses proved another triumph. 

TONY RENNELL: This is a situation that just over a century ago was all too familiar to the tiny band of pioneering women who, during World War I, defied convention and the arrogance of male doctors to break down exactly the same prejudice

Anderson was chief surgeon, Murray chief physician and together they ran the place with a combination of an iron hand and a velvet glove. 

The 80 nursing orderlies they recruited were a special asset and attraction, many of them society girls from posh homes and more used to being waited on hand and foot than tending to the basic needs of largely working-class soldiers. 

Some were former debutantes who turned up in chauffeured cars for their 12-hour shifts scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans. 

Murray believed the way they mucked in was the source of the ‘distinctive character’ and ‘fine spirit’ that set Endell Street apart. ‘They brought laughter into the wards.’ 

Games and concert parties were organised to cheer up the patients. There were flowers everywhere and an atmosphere of hope. The pressure was intense. 

As many as 30 operations were performed in a single day. When the fighting was at its bloodiest, convoys of wounded would arrive straight from the front, often in the middle of the night. The whole staff would turn out to greet them with smiles, words of comfort and tea before tucking them up in freshly made beds. 

The men loved the instant care they received, better than some sergeant hollering at them. Anderson was even kind to the incoming soldier she recognised as the policeman who arrested her four years earlier on a suffragette demonstration. 

They agreed to let bygones be bygones. She was never worried about keeping discipline among the patients. Just treat them like large babies, she said. 

‘Find out what toys they like, what they want for tea and what frightens them when going into an operation – that’s how to run a military hospital!’ 

With the staff, though, she and Murray could be harridans, dishing out crushing criticism that verged on bullying. 

‘We were truly terrified of them,’ one orderly recorded, ‘but we also admired them greatly for their high standards and always sought their approval.’ 

Praise for Endell Street flowed from all quarters. Generals visited and approved; royalty came. Tatler magazine hailed ‘the noble ladies who manage the Suffragette hospital’ as perfect examples of the ‘New Woman’ born out of the war. 

They proved themselves ‘men in the best sense of the word and women in the best sense of that word also’. For three years, the Endell Street women saved thousands of soldiers from death and disability. 

And their ministrations did not stop when the war ended in 1918. The Spanish flu epidemic took hold, filling the wards with sick and dying men and women. 

It was January 1920 before the hospital was stood down and finally closed its doors. Since opening in 1915, it had treated 26,000 patients and performed 7,000 operations. Here was proof, if needed, that women doctors were every bit as capable of performing military surgery as men. 

Yet, with peace, there was barely a blink before the old men-only attitudes re-surfaced. Male doctors returning home snapped up the bulk of jobs in hospitals and medical schools, catapulted into posts by men-only boards. 

Applications from women candidates were simply ignored as they were thrust back where they had been before the war – treating women and children in the handful of women-only hospitals or in low-status, poorly paid medical positions in factories, schools and asylums. 

The depressing result was that, of the 39 women doctors Anderson and Murray had taken on during the war, not one continued in mainstream surgery or got a job that involved treating men, Things were little better for the hospital’s two founders. 

Their achievements now counted for nothing. Cast aside as surplus to requirements, they reverted to running a 12-bed children’s hospital for the poor and a struggling private practice. 

In 1922, the disillusioned pair simply gave up altogether and went into retirement. A year later Flora Murray was dead from cancer, aged 54. 

Louisa lived on into a riper old age and when war broke out again in 1939, at the age of 66, with women doctors temporarily back in favour, went back to work as a surgeon. She died in 1943. 

For all the pioneering work of Anderson and Murray, a century ago a huge opportunity to open up the medical profession and drag it out of its blinkered, misogynist, closed-shop mentality was simply thrown away. 

Sadly Endell Street, which could have been the highway to a better, more equal and more efficient medical service in this country, proved to be a disappointing cul-de-sac.

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