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Good God! Women! The life of Louisa Garrett Anderson

Who was Louisa Garrett Anderson?

Louisa Garrett Anderson was born in 1873, the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson the first British female qualified and practicing doctor in England whose story was told in last week’s blog.

Louisa was equally remarkable. A qualified doctor, a female surgeon and a suffragette, she was appointed Co Commanding Officer of Endell Street Military Hospital, Covent Garden, alongside her partner Dr Flora Murray. The hospital,   staffed almost entirely by women, successfully treated hundreds of wounded soldiers between 1915-1919.

Early Life  

Louisa was the eldest of two surviving children, her younger sister Margaret died in December 1875 aged one of undiagnosed meningitis. Louisa became a doctor having learnt literally at her mother’s knee. Despite a tendency to protect Louisa because of the death of Margaret, Elizabeth took Louisa with her in her carriage when she did home visits to the working-class women of Lisson Grove and to the New Hospital where Louisa tramped the wards entertaining the patients. 

Louisa was initially educated at home and then attended St Leonards School in Scotland. She then studied at Bedford College, a women only institution,  to obtain science qualifications in order to study medicine. In 1892, aged twenty, she enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW) where her mother was the Dean. In 1897 she was awarded the Bachelor of Medicine, and in 1898 the Bachelor of Surgery. 

She took two junior posts in 1898 and 1899 at small hospitals in south London since attitudes at the time towards women made it impossible to gain employment in the larger ones. In 1900 she was finally awarded her Doctor of Medicine and spent six months as a house surgeon at the  Royal Free before enrolling at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the USA for postgraduate studies. Here she learned the importance of listening to patients and watched the demonstrations from army surgeons- complex operations carried out at speed.

On her return she was employed as a qualified surgeon, working at first at the New Hospital for Women on Euston Road founded by her mother, then both there and the Hospital for Children on the Harrow Road which she co-founded with Flora Murray in 1912. They used the suffragette slogan ‘Deeds not Words’ as the hospital’s motto.

Women’s suffrage- not as good as men but better- a triumph! 

Louisa with Flora and Elizabeth together with their friend the philospher Alfred Caldecott in 1910 on their way to speak to the Prime Minister about votes for women. LSE Library, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Louisa had been brought up to believe in women’s suffrage and in the emancipation of women. She had been involved with campaigns to win the vote organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies while pursuing her career. However, by 1907, frustrated by lack of progress being made by peaceful means, she  became a member of the more militant Women’s Political and Social Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. Together with Flora Murray who was four years older and physician to Emmeline, she helped the many women who were arrested, imprisoned and force fed as a response to their hunger strikes.  In 1912, Louisa took the difficult decision to participate in direct action- difficult because she didn’t want to risk her hard won qualifications. She was arrested for breaking a window and sentenced to six weeks hard labour. However, due to the intervention of her family she was given an early release. By 1913 she had left WSPU as she became alienated by the escalation of militancy of the group. She never gave up her suffrage views however. They drove both her and Flora.

For Louisa and many other women who trained in medicine, suffrage was as much about having equal rights to work in the profession as it was gaining the vote. 

The Endell Street Hospital

Hospital in Paris
The hospital in Paris. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Louisa was forty one in 1914 when World War One broke out. She had been practicing medicine as a surgeon for thirteen  years, yet the war office was not interested in women doctors helping the war effort. Louisa and Flora successfully offered their services to the French Red Cross instead, setting up what they called the Women’s Hospital Corps. They raised money for equipment and staff from suffragette friends and left England for Paris with women doctors, graduates from the LSMW and nurses.They set about setting up a hospital for wounded soldiers in the Claridge Hotel in Paris and one in Wimereux, on the Channel coast. This was their opportunity to prove women doctors were as good as men and should be employed in all capacities in any hospital. 

The gates at Endell Street. LSE Library, No restrictions

 

Meanwhile, as the war progressed British casualties on the Western Front  mounted up and  evacuation to hospitals in Britain began. More facilities and staff were needed for this expansion. Having seen the success of the work of the WHC in France, Louisa and Flora were invited by  Sir Alfred Keogh, director General of Army Medical Services at the War Office to open and run a hospital in London allocated an old five storey Victorian building, the former St Giles Union Workhouse in Endell Street, Covent Garden. First this had to be converted from chaos into a functioning medical facility.  Although they had the support  of Sir Alfred, the women at Endell Street received very little cooperation from senior military figures.The quote in the title – ‘Good God! Women!’ was the greeting from the Colonel, who was in charge of the conversion. However, the great benefit of this was that they were left alone to create their own approach, ethos and values and this they did. 

The Library. LSE no restrictions

By May 1915 they had opened, complete with seventeen wards, an operating theatre and an X-ray room. There were 180 members of staff, doctors, nurses and orderlies. All women. Flora Murray was the doctor in charge and Louisa was Chief surgeon. They started with 573 beds but by 1919 they had taken charge of two more hospitals and were responsible for 800 beds. They had learned a great deal about how to deal with war wounds whilst out in France but their experience also confirmed their belief that they could carry out medicine in a different way to the men and it would have better outcomes. They focussed on fighting infection, talking and listening to the men, and understanding their psychological needs. They recognised shell shock, although it wasn’t termed that, and were determined to bring activities into their care for these men. To this end, there was a theatre and a library of over 5000 books provided for patients, many of whom spent a considerable amount of time recovering.

Operation at Endell Street. Camden History Review. Original image IWM no restrictions

                                                                                                                                                      Wounded soldiers  were brought by ambulance straight from the boat train at Waterloo to the hospital with an average of between 30-50 men per day arriving, sometimes at night. They carried out almost 20 operations every day and performed complex procedures including craniotomies. Nothing could have prepared them for the intensity and difficulties of this work. At one time there were 154 men with compound fractures of the femur on the wards but the women doctors of Endell street rose to the challenge.

Louisa and Flora also  carried out pioneering work on wound infection working with their pathologist Helen Chambers. This was written up in papers that were published in the Lancet- thus they succeeded in infiltrating the heart of the male medical world- research!

 

L0027009 Endell Street Hospital. Wounded arriving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

 

Being so well connected they were in the newspapers a great deal. The Tatler recognised what the two commanding officers were trying to do from an early stage. In 1916 the magazine praised the ‘noble ladies who manage the Suffragette Hospital in Endell street. They are men in the best sense of the word and yet women in the best sense of that word too.’ In 1917 they were awarded the CBE for their work.

The two women remained at the hospital in 2019 treating men who were now victims of the Spanish flu epidemic but as 1920 arrived it all came to a juddering halt. 

L0026139 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. No restrictions

Back to ‘normal’ 

Louisa and Flora really did expect that having proved they could look after and make  a huge success of three hospitals with 800 beds for soldiers- they treated over 26,000 in patients from May 1915-Dec 1919 and carried out more than 7,000 operations -they would be allowed into the male area of medicine and surgery. That they had earned the right to  hold positions and work in the large hospitals such as the Middlesex or the LSU. They were not.

None of the 37 doctors who served at Endell Street went into general surgery or medicine, the areas in which many of them had the greatest expertise after the war. 

Louisa and Flora went back to their children’s hospital on Harrow Road, Flora wrote an account of the Endell Street hospital, now held in the archives of the women’s library of the LSE but in 1921 they closed the children’s hospital for lack of funds. They retired to their country cottage in Penn,       Buckinghamshire. By this time Flora had cancer and died in 1923. 

Louisa became a supporter of the conservative party, a magistrate and lived in Penn. When war broke out she volunteered and worked as a surgeon In 1943 she too was diagnosed with cancer and died that year in a nursing home in Brighton. 

What I was struck by, as I reflected on Louisa’s  life, is that it was in 1918 that the Representation of the People’s Act brought suffrage, in terms of the right to vote, to some women.  In 1919 the sex disqualification (Removal) Act was passed. Yet neither of these Acts made a material difference to these two incredibly talented women whose achievements were quite frankly astonishing.  

Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good was their mantra. And they had proved this was possible. Nevertheless it didn’t impact on the Male Boards of Trustees who ran the hospitals. 

References and Links

1. Endell Street by Wendy Moore– and to BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week choosing to it in June 2020- look out for the paperback version in March this year www.wendymoore.org

2. My review of the same for London Historians 

3. Article in Medical History 

4. Come on a virtual walk with me and hear about some of the women who shape British medicine. Click on the following link to sign up. Women and Medicine in Fitzrovia

 

                                                                                                                       

 

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