Inside the World War I Hospital Run and Staffed by Women

In DepthIn Depth

In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Wendy Moore, author of No Man’s Land: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran Britain’s Most Extraordinary Military Hospital During World War I, a work highlighting the historic women-run Endell Street Military Hospital in London that treated both World War I casualties and victims of the Spanish flu pandemic.

When Wendy Moore was searching for a story for her next book, she ventured into the History of Medicine Collection in London’s Wellcome Library. “I’ve written four previous books on medical and social history,” explained Moore, “but I was looking for a story, a really fascinating, hard-to-believe story.” That’s when she came across an enormous oil painting depicting an operating theater: “All the doctors were female, and that would be remarkable enough today–it’s still rare that a whole operating theater would be staffed by women–but then I found out this was an operating theater in a hospital in the first World War. Endell Street.”

Founded in May of 1915, six months after the war had begun, Endell Street Military Hospital treated approximately 26,000 patients, most of them men, with a staff of almost all women. But at the start of the war, women doctors who offered their services to the British army were flat-out rejected. “They actually told one woman doctor to go home and sit still,” says Moore. Women doctors in Britain were not allowed to treat men, work in mainstream hospitals, or conduct surgery, even though they had won the right to qualify as doctors several decades earlier. They could only treat women and children and work in women’s hospitals.

Enter Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, two doctors who were suffragettes and partners. The pair raised money and recruited a medical team of doctors, nurses, and orderlies–all women–and set off for France, where, within the first six weeks of the war, they established a hospital that treated the wounded in Paris. When army officials came to visit, they were so impressed that they asked Flora and Louisa to run a hospital for the army in London. The decision was not without criticism: “People didn’t think that it was possible, and that men would not allow themselves to be treated by women,” said Moore. Endell Street would prove them wrong.

In our episode above, Moore speaks to the feat of Endell Street, the women who tended to the wounded, and what happened after the hospital closed its doors four years later in 1919.

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