Dr Isabella Stenhouse, a Woman Doctor in WW1

In this blog, Katrina Kirkwood tells the remarkable story of a woman doctor who helped the war effort at home and abroad. Isabella Stenhouse gained experience as a surgeon, and her story has inspired a community art installation to mark the centenary.

Dr Isabella Stenhouse had only recently qualified when WW1 broke out, yet she served in military hospitals in France, Malta, and Egypt.

At the outbreak of WW1, less than 0.024% of actively practising doctors in Britain were women, but while nurses tended wounded soldiers and untrained women morphed into VADs, women doctors were told by the War Office, the British Red Cross and even feminists such as Millicent Fawcett to stay home and take up the slack created by male doctors leaving for the Front.

While this gave them temporary access to a wider range of medical practice than usual, it failed to satisfy some. These women made their own way to the war-zone: patriotism apart, they hoped that proving their skills in wartime would force male doctors to allow them into every specialty of their profession after the war.

Isabella took a post in a French Red Cross hospital in 1915. She gave anaesthetics, dressed wounds, operated and fought gas gangrene. When the hospital closed that autumn, she took a post as an anatomy demonstrator to improve her surgical skills.

By summer 1916 the Army desperately needed more doctors and was forced to ask for a few medical women to work alongside the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in Malta. On 24th July, as the Battle of the Somme raged, Isabella signed up. She embarked for Malta three weeks later.

Although a few of the 40 women doctors who arrived in Malta that summer had, like Isabella, crossed the Channel to tend the wounded of Britain’s allies, most had little war experience. They were an impressive bunch. Among others, there was a former President of the Association of Registered Medical Women, a suffragist who had taken part in the 1911 census protest, and an expert on the health of munitions factory workers.

Malta had become the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’. Buildings all over the island had been converted into hospitals to care for more than 25,000 men injured in Gallipoli. By 1916, similar numbers of men suffering from infectious diseases were arriving from Salonika. Isabella, training as a surgeon, was posted to a surgical hospital.

DR Isabella Stenhouse_2_CROPPEDThe Army soon requested more women doctors, and by the end of 1916 about 80 medical women were working in Malta. However the increasing German U-boat activity of 1917 made it too dangerous to ship patients to the island and, while other women were sent to Salonika, Isabella was posted to Egypt.

The conditions under which the women were serving in these larger theatres of war became a serious problem. While male doctors who volunteered with the RAMC received temporary commissions and the right, among other privileges, to wear uniform and RAMC badges, female doctors received none of these privileges. With letters censored, they could not even complain. Incensed, one woman refused to renew her contract and spoke out. The Medical Women’s Federation (MWF), supported by the British Medical Association (BMA), investigated and, early in 1918, a consensus emerged.

1)    We need rank for our patients’ sake as we each have to maintain discipline among 130 men.
2)    We need it for the sake of the profession as a whole, that no one section of it may ever be considered inferior to another. (Dr C.M. Astley Meer, Egypt, MWF Archive)

By this time medical women were also working alongside the Army in various capacities in Britain and France. Reluctantly, the Army agreed to permit the ladies to wear uniform, but said they had no power to offer commissions: legislation was required. The campaign moved to Parliament, but with the war ending, a new government installed and the Army reassessing its medical services, the MWF and BMA had to let the campaign drop.

Far away from London and the politics of campaigning, Isabella’s war in Egypt had an unexpected ending – she got married. She continued to work, but not as a surgeon – like so many other women, medical and otherwise, she was unable to build on her experience in a male-dominated sphere after the war. Side-lined into mother and baby work, she maintained until her dying day that she was a Captain, the rank she would have had if she had been a man.

She also left behind a mysterious string of beads, the gift of a grateful patient, so to celebrate the mark left by women like her on the nation’s ‘cultural DNA’, individuals and communities are decorating beads to create an installation which will ultimately consist of 46 ‘strands of DNA’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *