Women medics and the First World War.

Women medics and the first world war

By 1914, the long fight by women to gain entry to medical education had largely been won. However Oxbridge and the London teaching hospitals, including St George’s, still held out and refused to admit women for training. In 1915, in response to wartime staff shortages St George’s relented and admitted it’s first four female medical students. It was the first London teaching hospital to do so. The St Georges Hospital Gazette reported that:

‘Among the many sorrowful effects which the War has had upon us it is pleasant to record one joyful result which we would never have attained without a war. Variety and charm has been added to the Medical School and its works by the admission of ladies as students’ (St George’s Hospital Gazette, April, 1915).

Despite this initial enthusiasm, fears of controversy led to these places being rescinded.  The  female students were impelled to write and plead their cases. In 1916 the medical school acquiesced and allowed them to continue their studies. This indicates that medical training for women remained a contentious issue. By 1917 however, St George’s was prepared to even employ women, albeit temporarily, as house officers.


Two of St George’s first female medical students (St George’s archive).

Irregardless of the medical school women graduated from, they were still confronted by a scarcity of available positions. Most found themselves limited to work in women’s hospitals, moving to obscure geographical locations or adopting specialities that did not generally appeal to men.  When the First World War broke out there was no official interest in involving qualified female doctors in the war effort. When Dr Elsie Inglis attempted to volunteer, the infamous War Office response was ‘My good lady, go home and sit still’. This was unlikely to ever happen; Dr Inglis like others had been involved in the suffrage movement. Women doctors simply approached their campaign to help the war effort in the same way they had fought for voting rights. They mobilised support, formed voluntary groups and raised money. In effect they simply circumvented  officialdom and offered their services elsewhere, even to foreign governments.

In 1914 the Women’s Hospital Corps was formed by Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson and Dr Flora Murray. The French government, unlike their British counterparts, promptly accepted their offer of help. Under the aegis of the French Red Cross the Women’s Medical Corp successfully ran military hospitals in Paris and Boulogne. In Paris they occupied the newly built Claridge’s Hotel on the Champs Elysee. The organisational skills required to raise funds, recruit staff, design uniforms and equip and manage the hospital were considerable. But both women were experienced doctors and had been active suffragettes, Dr Garrett Anderson herself had even been imprisoned in Holloway. They must have been formidable; the concierge told Dr Garratt Anderson that ‘he would have had an easier time fighting the Germans than facing so many active English Ladies!’ (Papers of Louisa Garrett Anderson,1914).

floramurrayFlora Murray supervising an operation at the Paris Red Cross Women’s Hospital (image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

In 1915, ostensibly to free men for service, the Corps was given control of the Endell Street Hospital in London which treated over 25,000 patients during the duration of the war (Murray, 1920). The Scottish Women’s Hospital, which had been formed by Dr Elsie Inglis after her War Office rebuff, distinguished itself in Serbia and France in 1916. In Serbia, the all female staff of the hospital found themselves in the midst of the conflict treating serious injuries in extremely difficult conditions. Moreover they had to fight major epidemics of disease and deal with a starving civilian population. The Hospital’s volunteers were forced to join the retreat during which thousands died. Some chose to take the even more risky option of  staying behind with patients who could not be moved.  Dr Inglis herself was taken prisoner of war.

In that same year, in the light of escalating need, the War Office reconsidered their positions and grudgingly allowed female doctors and surgeons to join the services. Despite the efficiency of the Women’s Medical Corps and the sheer toughness of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals the authorities continued to refuse to countenance the idea of women near the battlefield. Instead volunteer medics were sent  to locations like Malta. This was located far from the fighting and  most of the patients there were being treated for malaria and other infectious diseases.


The Newnham and Girton units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals about to leave for Serbia in 1915 (image courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow).

Nonetheless the war gave female medics, especially at the voluntary women’s hospitals, the chance to treat a wider range of cases. Like their male counterparts they dealt with gruesome wounds, amputations and fierce infections in great numbers. Dr Garrett Anderson described her routine in Paris:

‘I am in the theatre from 2 – 9 or 10 at night and eight or more [operations] The cases come to us very septic and the wounds are terrible. Today we are having an amput’ of thigh, two head cases perhaps trephine and five smaller ones’ (Papers of Louisa Garrett Anderson, 1914) .

Despite their efforts, women serving  their country were, unlike their male compatriots denied official military commission. In addition they were paid less, had one year contracts, were given no uniform and did not necessarily  receive any ration or billeting allowance. Furthermore they would not receive any pension if they were injured (Leneman, p.1593). Dr Jane Walker wrote to the Times in 1918 complaining that:

‘Although many of the medical women in the army not only have a high professional standing in civil practice, but now have a large experience in military hospitals, they rank below the latest joined R.A.M.C. subaltern, and are obliged to take their orders from him. When they travel, they travel not as officers but as soldiers wives’ (Times, 1918).

Whilst women’s’ suffrage had been put on hold for the duration of the war the Medical Women’s Federation decided to challenge this inequality robustly. A number of reasons for treating women in an inferior manner were put forward. Some feared it would be the thin edge of the wedge and that women serving elsewhere in the forces might also want commissions. The military were by nature conservative and some in it’s ranks had no sympathy for claims of sexual equality.

LouisaDr Louisa Garratt Anderson photographed in 1918 (image: Open I)

Perhaps the oddest objection was that the ordinary soldier would not bear examination by female medics or tolerate treatment of venereal disease. This, despite the fact that female nurses dealt with cases of venereal disease and had continual intimate contact with patients.  A doctor was traditionally a masculine authoritarian role and it was felt men might resent being told what to do by a woman. A famous Punch cartoon of 1915 shows a stern looking female doctor recognising a patient. The patient cheerfully points out that as a police constable before the war he had once arrested her in her guise as suffragette. There appear however to have been few examples of any complaints from patients at being treated by a female surgeon or medic. The women run hospitals were, in fact, considered to be far more pleasant places to be than many official alternatives.

endell wardWard round at Endell Street hospital (image courtesy of bbc. co).

Women doctors had some support, from both the British Medical Association and more enlightened officials within the War Office. The then Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill ultimately refused to allow women to hold commissioned rank commensurate to their skills and responsibilities. He concurred with the official line that a commissioned officer had to be able to undertake all kinds of military duties, including where necessary, fighting. The Medical Women’s Federation retort to this was that:

‘Commissions have been given to numbers of medical men who by reason of physical disability or age were not fit for service’ (Contemporary Medical Archives Centre).

The War Office however maintained that a man unfit for full service was still more able to serve than an able bodied woman. In 1919 the Medical Women’s Federation declared that in future it would advise it’s members never to volunteer for any emergency, unless they were treated in the same way as the men.

Despite finally being granted limited suffrage in 1918, many female army medics found themselves  rapidly demoted back the backwoods of hospital medicine, but not all. Some helped found famous hospitals and others became leading figures in their fields. Notably however, few were allowed to continue to practice as surgeons, where their greatest expertise and experience lay.

In the case of St George’s Blomfield wrote of its women students:

… they proved an enthusiastic and efficient body. Most of them became house officers in their turn. Some occupied the higher posts of assistant curator and pathologist with such signal success that their services were retained long after the war had ceased. No more women students were admitted, however, as soon as it became plain that we were getting enough men to fill all the necessary posts in due course. The school is not big enough to harbour women as long as it continues its present prosperity with men’ (Blomfield, p. 92).

The War Office in fact continued its stance until the Second World War became imminent when again a generation of female doctors and surgeons would be called upon. That generation however were even less inclined to tolerate the inequalities their predecessors had been but even then they were only granted ‘relative’ rank and often denied commissions.


Blomfield, J. (1933) St George’s: 1733-1933. London: The Medici Society.

SA/MWF/C.163. Contemporary Medical Archives Centre, Wellcome Trust.

Leneman, L. (1933) ‘ Medical Women in the first world war-ranking nowhere’, British Medical Journal, 307 (December) pp.1592 – 1594.
Murray, F. (1920) Women as army surgeons. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Papers of Louisa Garrett Anderson, The Women’s Library, London.

St George’s Hospital Gazette, 1915.
The Times Letters page, The Times, 4 July.