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This guest post by Gareth Edwards was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of January 2015.

A longer version of this article, with more images, is here.

Look around Endell Street today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago it was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital officially staffed, and managed, entirely by women.

That the hospital existed at all was largely thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women – Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. Both women had trained at the London School of Medicine for Women. They became firm friends and founded the Women’s Hospital for Children together on Harrow Road in 1912. Both were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement – not surprising, given their own experiences at the hands of the misogynistic British medical establishment.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the pair wanted to serve in a medical capacity, but realised that any direct approach to the War Office would likely end in them being dismissed out of hand. Casting about, they soon discovered that the French Army were desperate for medical staff so approached the French Red Cross with the offer of equipping and staffing a hospital. The French quickly accepted.

Within just two weeks the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) had begun to take shape. Within three Murray, Garett Anderson and their new organisation were boarding a train for the continent. The 80 year old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Louisa’s mother and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – watched on from the platform.

“Are you not proud, Mrs Anderson?” A friend asked.

“Yes.” She answered. “Twenty years younger I would have taken them myself.”

Their first hospital, established in the disused Hotel Claridge in Paris and known to everyone as “Claridges” was soon taking wounded soldiers and quickly established a reputation as one of the foremost military hospitals in Paris. This was in no small part thanks to Murray and Garrett Anderson’s deft handling of the many military and civilian visitors the hospital attracted. A succession of critical Generals and administrators passed through Claridges and each received a comprehensive tour, their questions patiently answered, however insulting. More often than not they left with a higher opinion of the WHC than when they arrived.

In November as fighting worsened, Murray and Garrett Anderson journeyed to Boulogne to meet a hard-pressed Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Medical Service who had previously visited Claridges and been impressed. If they moved the WHC nearer the front, they asked him, would he use them?

“Yes.” He replied. “To the fullest extent.”

Acknowledgement of their services at the front did not automatically translate to recognition with the War Office back home, however. The new hospital at Wimereux soon built up its own impressive reputation though and the ability of the WHC to run an effective military hospital became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Finally, in February 1915 Murray and Garrett Anderson were invited to London to meet Sir Alfred Keogh, Director General of Army Medical Services. In Keogh they found an unexpected ally. He had read the reports on the WHC coming from those in the field in France and he offered them the chance to make history – he asked them to establish an RAMC military hospital of at least 500 beds at Endell Street in London, staffed solely by women. They agreed and on the 18th February Keogh publicly praised the two doctors and announced the plans to the press.

“He had asked them to take charge of a hospital of 500 beds.” The Times reported with some astonishment the next day. “And if they pleased, of a hospital with 1,000 beds.”

Setting up the hospital at Endell Street was a whole new challenge for the women of the WHC as much of the British army medical establishment was still actively hostile to their efforts. The location chosen for the hospital was an old work house and getting it ready required significant work. Somehow, with little assistance from the rest of the RAMC, they had the hospital ready in time for its opening.

The general expectation amongst those opposed to their work was that the Endell Street experiment would fail within 6 months. Under Murray’s capable supervision and thanks to the efforts of all of its staff it instead quickly became one of the foremost military hospitals in London. With this the hostility gradually began to decrease, replaced with a sort of lukewarm tolerance and gentle neglect.

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Francis Dodd, chalk drawing, 1917. Image: Wellcome Images.

Indeed over time the staff would turn this situation to something of an advantage as it allowed them to ignore certain standard British Army practices in favour of new ideas. Murray believed psychological wellbeing was as important as physical when it came to recovery and wards were bright with many activities laid on for the men. Garrett Anderson meanwhile, along with a brilliant pathologist called Helen Chambers, was able to carry out extensive clinical research. Together they trialled, then deployed, a new compound “Bipp” paste that dramatically reduced the frequency with which surgical dressings needed to be changed.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of Bipp paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited. Later that year both Murray and Garrett Anderson were awarded the CBE for their war work.

“I knew you could do it.” Keogh confided to Garrett Anderson towards the war’s end. “We were watched, but you have silenced all critics.”

By that time the war ended their success was indeed there for all to see. When Parliament granted the first limited voting rights to women in 1918, Murray ordered their only ever overt political act – a suffragist flag was hoisted in the hospital courtyard, to the cheers of staff and patients alike.

Endell Street Military Hospital finally closed in 1919. To say that it changed things instantly would be an overstatement but, thanks to efforts of those who worked there, it represented a huge step in the right direction. Some of the women at Endell Street moved on to great things. One of the younger members of staff there, Hazel Cuthbert, became the first female physician appointed at the Royal Free. Many more however still found their careers limited by prejudice – despite performing over 7000 operations, for example, none of the female surgeons from Endell Street would perform major surgery again.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson meanwhile returned together to the small children’s hospital they had founded on the Harrow Road. Both remained active in politics until the ends of their lives. Neither woman ever married, and they are buried together near the home they shared in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on their shared tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy.”

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Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy London Remembers.com.

On Endell Street itself, little evidence of their achievement remains. The old building that contained the hospital is long gone – replaced by Dudley Court, a red brick housing block. Look around a bit though and you’ll find a blue plaque marking the spot where it stood. It is worth hunting out – a few words to commemorate some awfully mighty deeds.


London Reconnections.
Wellcome Images.
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