At the turn of the 20th century, women in the medical field were only allowed to treat other women or children. When the war broke out across Europe in 1914, Louisa Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain’s first female doctor, proposed to set up a hospital to treat the wounded fighting in World War I. The co-founder of the Women’s Hospital for Children in London would have liked to volunteer her medical services to the British War Office. But she knew if she did, she would be denied.
Anderson and her colleague and partner, Flora Murray, who were also ardent supporters of the women’s suffrage movement, approached the French Red Cross instead, just eight days after Britain declared war on Germany. Unlike the War Office, which would have turned the women away because treating male patients was considered taboo, the French said yes. With support from other local suffragettes, 14 women and four male nurses from the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) immediately left for France.
“This is just what you would have done at my age,” Anderson wrote her mother on Sept. 15, 1914, while on a train to Paris. “I hope I shall be able to do it half as well as you would have done.”
They arrived at the Hôtel Claridge, a brand-new luxury hotel, and transformed it into a makeshift military hospital. The hotel initially had no lighting, no running water, and no heating. In no more than 48 hours, the WHC set up 100 camp beds in the dining hall. The coatroom was converted into an operating room, a fish kettle was used for a sterilizing unit, and the grilling room became the mortuary. The women hadn’t previously operated on men, much less had any experience working to patch victims with traumatic injuries suffered in war.
“I wish the whole organization for the care of the wounded … could be put into the hands of women,” Anderson wrote in a letter to her mother on Sept. 27, 1914. “This is not military work. It is merely a matter of organisation, common sense, attention to detail and a determination to avoid unnecessary suffering and loss of life.”
Murray, a physician and anesthetist, and Anderson, a surgeon, had to learn techniques in real time on the operating table. “The shell injuries are dreadful & the men come to us worn out after days in the trenches,” Anderson told her mother. “The cases come to us very septic & the wounds are terrible.”
After only two months in operation, they opened their second hospital of 60 beds in a small hotel near Boulogne. The WHC soon caught the attention of officials in the British Army and were invited to practice in London. The Endell Street Military Hospital, the first and only women-run military hospital in the United Kingdom, opened in May 1915. The all-female medical team had 573 beds and performed over 7,000 major operations on more than 24,000 patients. The hospital motto was the same as that of the suffragettes: “Deeds Not Words.”
The Endell Street Military Hospital remained open after the war and treated patients from the influenza pandemic of 1918. Their doors closed in 1919, but before they did, both Anderson and Murray were appointed Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the CBE, in 1917 for their contributions to the war efforts.