When the First World War broke out, many suffragettes threw their skills into the war effort. Among them were pioneering doctors (and life partners) Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of Elizabeth). After doctoring in France, they returned to London in 1915 and established a military hospital in a derelict old workhouse in Covent Garden, staffed entirely by women. Their riveting story provides a vivid alternative portrait of wartime London, as well as an overdue tribute to the brilliance and bravery of extraordinary women.
This autocratic style gave rise to personality clashes and misunderstandings, but there was no question about Anderson and Murray’s commitment to making Endell Street an institution where female expertise could thrive. It was a model of work rooted in relationships that saw men mostly as superfluous. Anderson and Murray protected young orderlies from parental demands, especially from the father who ‘likes to have his girls with him in the evenings’, and were disapproving of staff leaving to get married. On one occasion, Anderson grasped the hand of a colleague who had announced her engagement and said: ‘Well, well, you poor girl, I am sorry for you.’ Murray later remarked to someone else that she hoped matrimony ‘would not become infectious’.
Throughout the war Endell Street admitted between 400 and 800 cases a month, and treated more than 24,000 patients. Wendy Moore vividly depicts the convoys of seriously wounded soldiers arriving straight from the battlefields in France in the hospital’s courtyard in the middle of the night, most requiring immediate surgery. Chief surgeon Anderson and her team pioneered successful treatments including an antiseptic ointment to heal septic wounds and prevent amputations. Moore is superb at describing the medical advances that resulted in seven research papers by Endell Street doctors being published in The Lancet, among the first ever by women.
I love the minor characters in this book: the legions of well brought-up volunteers such as Last, with perfect deportment, who had been destined for lives of parties followed by marriage. Now they suddenly found themselves able to be useful as orderlies. Sometimes the young women were forced to go back home because the mothers “felt lonely”, or the fathers “liked to have a daughter at home to talk to in the evenings”. Some of the orderlies would be dropped off in luxury motorcars in the morning and collected at the end of the day by the chauffeur.
Rarely is a book so important, so timely. Medical journalist and author Moore has form with her graphic 2006 biography of the pioneering 18th-century surgeon John Hunter. But vividly and meticulously written, Endell Street is a masterpiece to stretcher straight into a major film studio. What material! Wealth and brains united in Anderson, niece of militant suffragist Millicent Fawcett and daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain’s first woman doctor. The women-only medical school she founded also trained her daughter.