No Man's Land: The story of women doctors in WWI

Recognition as exceptions relegates women to a niche, while history has proved that millions of women have contributed to the better life of their peers and laid the groundwork for progress.

A Red Cross volunteer works to prevent the spread of corona in Senegal in April (photo credit: ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS)
A Red Cross volunteer works to prevent the spread of corona in Senegal in April
(photo credit: ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS)
Histories about game-changing women have begun emerging in recent years, filling gaps with narratives that enhance what we know about momentous events in the 20th century – from two world wars to the civil rights era.
I am thinking about the young British women who were recruited to help the Royal Navy prevent German U-boats from doing further damage in the war in the Atlantic during World War II. That history was revealed in the brilliant 2019 book, A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin.
The 2016 award-winning film Hidden Figures spotlighted the contributions of African American women whose math genius helped NASA explore space and land on the moon.
And now we have No Man’s Land, by Wendy Moore, the story of women doctors during World War I, a marvelous book published this year.
It begins with the militancy of suffragettes in England and extends to the ravages of the flu pandemic of 1918, all within the backdrop of the First World War.
The main characters are physicians Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray. They were fighting for women’s suffrage at a time when women were not only denied the right to vote but were barred from prestigious medical schools. The only medicine that women could practice was in clinics and hospitals specifically for women and children, and their education and recompense were limited.
The hostility they faced for their protests, deemed illegal, landed many in jail – including Anderson.
As doctors, Anderson and Murray saw the suffrage movement in broader terms, so when World War I broke out, they lobbied to demonstrate their medical prowess in military hospitals. They were thoroughly rebuffed by the British War Office.
By hook and crook, they finagled positions with the French Red Cross in Paris, opening a hospital in a hotel that had just been built and not yet opened.
They recruited other female physicians, nurses, orderlies, donations and supplies from their vast network of suffragettes and their sympathizers.
Their hospital in Paris, and a subsequent one closer to the front in France, earned them accolades from military men who had previously considered the idea of women doctoring soldiers ludicrous.
The prevailing sentiment was that women would not be able to handle the gurneys, the sight of blood, jutting bones or gaping chest wounds. They should certainly not be dealing with men who showed up with wounds to intimate parts of their bodies.
When Anderson and Murray and their scores of support staff returned to London to open a hospital in a former workhouse on Endell Street, they had a champion in Sir Alfred Keogh, director general of the Army Medical Services.
He had toured their hospitals and surveyed their work, reporting to the War Office that their professionalism, progressive methods, organization and cleanliness exceeded that of any other surgical hospital in the system. It was his advocacy that paved their way.
By word of mouth, physicians from Canada, Australia and the United States began arriving to work at Endell Street.
After initial pushback from wounded soldiers, the hospitals run by women became places they preferred to land for care; many requested them after laudatory reports from men who were patched up and returned to battle.
Because wounded soldiers were still being delivered after armistice was declared, the Endell Street hospital remained open as peace celebrations swelled in the streets of London. Strangers were hugging and kissing; people were elbow to elbow. Soon, Endell Street hospital began receiving victims of the influenza pandemic, which lasted from 1918 through 1919.
The tireless work of Anderson and Murray was almost superhuman. There was no crack in their armor. They knew they had to perform superbly and to avoid failure to overcome prejudice against women doctors. During the war, Anderson performed dozens of surgeries every day, often into the night. Their staffs awoke at any and all times to receive convoys of wounded.
During the pandemic, many soldiers who had survived the war succumbed to the flu. Many of the hospital staff fell ill, and some died. It was a cruel epilogue after years of relentless carnage on the battlefront.
Like Parkin, Moore researched her subject thoroughly, scouring old newspapers, letters, diaries and oral histories to pluck details to build a compelling narrative.
After the war, British women over age 30 would get the vote, but medical schools hung onto their prejudices, as did much of society. When women had been desperately needed to fill positions, including those of physicians, they were desperately sought. Anderson and Murray were even granted military rank. But as soon as able-bodied men could return to the jobs, the women were shunted back to the sidelines.
It wasn’t until after World War II that all British medical schools were open to women. Even then, many deans decided that women could make up only 20% of their student body. That injustice was not remedied until 1975.
History has always paid notice to powerful and heroic women such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. But recognition as exceptions relegates women to a niche, while history has proved that millions of women have contributed to the better life of their peers and laid the groundwork for progress.
More of history’s hidden figures need to be brought to light, and for more than a designated month each year. There is surely a trove of stories still to be told, and I eagerly await them.
   
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

NO MAN’S LAND
By Wendy Moore
Basic Books
368 pages; $30