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Celebrating extraordinary pioneers

This month is LGBT+ History Month. It’s a chance to reflect on the past, present and future of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, celebrate its culture and explore the contributions of members of the community throughout history.

This is something we aim to do across all our exhibitions and events at NESM, every day of the year. For us this doesn’t mean singling out the LGBT+ experience of the emergency services as something separate, but usualising it as part of the wider history of emergency services personnel. It means acknowledging and celebrating the individual contributions of members of the community as an integral and established part of its long and varied history.

The theme of this year’s LGBT+ History Month is #UnderTheScope, reflecting on the contribution of the LGBT+ community across medicine and healthcare both historically and today. This is something that we are proud to do at NESM. In our ‘For King and Country’ exhibition, which explores the role of the emergency services during World War I, we share the achievements of two remarkable LGBT+ pioneers and their groundbreaking medical innovations. This is their story. 

Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson and Dr Flora Murray

For Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, breaking down barriers and tackling the status quo was in her blood. In 1865 her mother, Elizabeth, became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain. Her aunt, Millicent Fawcett, was a leading suffragist and founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS); her statue now stands in Parliament Square in London.

The statue of Millicent Fawcett (L) includes the names of 59 women and four men who supported women's suffrage. Louisa is one of them (above).

Following in the footsteps of her famous forebears Louisa was drawn to both medicine and the suffragist movement. She studied at the London School of Medicine for Women and qualified as a doctor in 1900, aged around 27, pursuing further study in the USA. Despite her qualifications she couldn’t work at a general hospital, where the idea of female doctors treating male patients was opposed, so she joined the New Hospital for Women, founded by her mother.

Whilst building her career as a doctor, Louisa was also an active and high-profile suffragist. She worked with organisations affiliated to the NUWSS before joining forces with the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1912, she was briefly imprisoned in Holloway.

Four years older than Louisa, Dr Flora Murray was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1869. She also studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, in 1897, and after settling permanently in the capital became an influential member of the suffragist movement, helping to treat women who had been subjected to force feeding. All of which brought Flora and Louisa into the same orbit, from where they forged a personal and professional partnership that lasted until Flora’s death.

Louisa (L) and Flora in the uniform of the Women's Hospital Corps.

In 1912 the pair founded the Women’s Hospital for Children. Two years later at the start of World War I, and keen to do their bit, they established the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC). Knowing that the British would likely reject their help they travelled to Paris and, with support from the French Red Cross, opened their first military hospital - it took them less than two weeks to get it up and running. It was staffed almost entirely by women, from doctors and surgeons to porters and orderlies; a sight so unusual many people visited just to see it in action.

Initial hostility and scepticism soon gave way to admiration and their hospital came to be regarded as the best in Paris. Flora reported in her diary that visiting representatives of the British War Office were astonished to find a hospital run successfully by British women, and they were soon keen to claim it as a British auxiliary hospital rather than a French one.

In 1915 the WHC received official army recognition and, with the closure of the hospital in France, Louisa and Flora were invited to open the Endell Street Military Hospital on behalf of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). Louisa was named Chief Surgeon and Flora Doctor in Charge, and they brought with them many of the staff they had worked with in France.

Endell Street is still the only military hospital ever to be run and staffed entirely by women.

Some in the RAMC did not hold back on their opinions about an all-female military hospital in the UK. They felt that women would not be properly trained to care and control soldiers in what was essentially a military setting. However, some of the so-called ‘feminine’ touches actually added to its success. The hospital aimed to provide a calming, home-like environment with flowers in every room, brightly coloured bedding and lamps to encourage reading - a far cry from the usual military hospital. Taking into consideration their patients' psychological wellbeing alongside their physical health helped to make Endell Street a huge success. Despite predictions (or perhaps hopes, in some quarters) that it would fail within six months it became a first-class medical institution. Whereas men had once refused to be treated there, now wounded soldiers were asking to be sent into the care of the WHC.

Endell Street Military Hospital was based in an old workhouse near Covent Garden, London.

The hospital could treat up to 800 patients at one time. As many as 80 wounded men might arrive on the same convoy and the team regularly carried out 20 operations a day. Between May 1915 and its closure in 1919 it’s estimated 26,000 men were cared for at Endell Street. It remains the only military hospital ever to be run and staffed entirely by women.

Louisa also conducted groundbreaking research into the treatment of wounds at Endell. The hospital trialled a new antiseptic wound treatment, BIPP paste, which reduced the need for dressing changes from daily to once every 7-14 days. After some small initial tests a larger scale trial was held in 1916, with encouragement from the paste’s inventor, James Rutherford Morison. Anderson published the results in The Lancet and the technique was widely adopted by surgeons after the war.

(L) This painting shows Louisa (centre) performing an operation, with Flora as the anaesthetist.

The quality of care at Endell Street and the development of BIPP paste made Louisa and Flora’s achievements impossible to ignore. In Jan 1917 Queen Alexandra visited the hospital and later that year they were both awarded a CBE for their war work.

Newspapers reported on Louisa and Flora receiving their CBEs (but not without misspelling Louisa's name and omitting Flora's title of Doctor.)

After the war and the closure of Endell Street, the pair retired together to a cottage in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Flora wrote a book about her war experiences, which she dedicated to Louisa; “bold, cautious, true and my loving companion”. Flora died in 1923, with Louisa by her side, and was buried near the home they shared. Her partner survived her by 20 years. Louisa’s ashes were scattered across the South Downs but a shared memorial stone at Holy Trinity Church, Penn, remembers both women and their remarkable careers. The inscription concludes: “We have been gloriously happy”.

Flora is buried in Penn, Buckinghamshire. She and Louisa are commemorated on the memorial stone.


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