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Endell St Military Hospital, London - run by women during WW1

WW1 hospitals were tough, partially because the conditions in which the medical staff had to tend to the terrible injuries were too crowded and poorly equipped.

But necessity was the mother of invention; the wounds inflicted on millions of soldiers drove the search for new medical tech­niqu­es. Technological innovations had a massive impact on survival rates. The Thomas splint, for example, secured a broken leg. In 1914, 80% of all soldiers with a broken femur died. By 1916, 80% of such soldiers survived.

The British Army began the routine use of blood transfusion in treating wounded soldiers, where blood was transferred directly from one person to another. That was until a US Army Dr Captain Robertson realised the need to stockpile blood; he established the first blood bank on the Western Front in 1917, using sodium citrate to prevent coagulation. Blood was kept on ice for up to 28 days and then transported to casualty clearing stat­ions for use in life-saving surgery.

But professional hospitals were needed. In Aug 1914 two women, Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett And­erson, founded the Women's Hospital Corps/WHC whose medical staff was entirely composed of graduates from the London School of Medicine for Women. Because the women anticipated a demeaning reaction from the War Off­ice, Drs Murray and Garrett Anderson applied to the more liberal French Red Cross. The French did allocate the newly built Hotel Claridge in Paris for the women to use as a military hospital! It opened in Sept 1914. 

The Red Cross brought wounded soldiers on stretchers
and the hospital staff took them in via external lifts.

Many wounded soldiers needed surgery as soon as they arrived at the hospital

British teaching hospitals had refused to appoint women to training posts. Yet despite their limited surgical experience, the hospital was successful; French and British authorities' scepticism reduced. Britain’s Royal Army Medical Corps­-RAMC began to treat the hospital as if it were an auxiliary to the British Army, rather than to the French Army.

Then the two doctors were asked to open another hospital at Wimereux, near Boulogne. The Women's Hospital Corps ran both hospitals successfully.

In Jan 1915, a change of policy meant British casualties were evacuated back to the UK, rather than remaining in France. Drs Murray and Garrett Anderson offered the services of the WHC to the British Army. Fortunately the War Office had received favour­able reports of the Corps' achievements. So the two women were per­sonally invited by the Army Medical Servic­es’ director to run a large military hospital in central London, under RAMC auspices. The WHC closed down its two  hospitals in France and returned home.

The Endell St Military Hospital in Covent Gardens opened in May 1915 in the form­er St Giles workhouse, previously used by the Met­rop­olitan Asylums Board to house destitute enemy aliens and Cont­inental refugees. The hospital blocks were 5 storeys high, linked by a glass-covered passageway. Part of the workhouse was C18th, but the children's home behind the main buildings was modern.

To prepare the buildings for use as a hospital, extensive struct­ural alterations were needed. External lifts capable of carrying stretchers, electric lighting, ward kitchens and bathrooms were ins­talled on each floor, and operating theatres, X-ray rooms, laborat­ories, dispensaries, mortuary and storerooms were created. The Hospital had 520 beds.

Established to treat only male patients, it was almost entirely staffed by women - 15 doctors, including visiting specialists. Dr Murray was the Doctor-in-Charge, while Dr Garrett Anderson was the Chief Surgeon. The nursing staff comprised a Matron lent by the New Hospital for Women, Assistant Matron, 28 Sisters and 60 female nursing ord­erlies. The sisters' uniform was of a blue-grey washable material with scarlet shoulder straps and the orderlies wore white.

Other staff included a dispenser, two masseuses, transport officer, stew­ard, quartermaster, clerks, storekeepers, cooks, cleaners and a male orderly on each floor.

The RAMC was convinced that the Hospital would soon close. But be­cause of its proximity to major railway termini, casualties poured in via ambulance trains. 30-80 casualties would be received daily, often late at night. Soon the number of beds had to be increased to 573.

Officially an Army hospital, new military admissions were operated on immediately; surgeons sometimes performed 20+ operat­ions a day! Many patients needed major abdom­in­al surgery, some with head injuries required craniotomy and a great proportion were orthopaedic cases with compound fractures of long bones. As the war progressed, specialist units were estab­lish­ed by the War Office, and patients with head injuries or femoral fract­ures were diverted to the specialist units. However, a large number of amputees were still admitted to the Endell St Hospital.

The 17 wards were wide and bright for up to 40 beds each, with windows on either side. The walls had colour, and the bedcovers could be warm, striped Army blankets. Additional luxuries eg reading lamps provided more comfort. The wards were also decorated with flowers, replaced daily by volunteers, who also brightened the courtyard with displays of flowers in window boxes. The women had created a soft, home-like atmosphere.

While most military hospitals had volunteers who ar­ranged books, games and ent­er­tainments for their patients, many professionals in central London prov­ided free entertainment on this hosp­it­al’s stage. Sports days, the library and needlework classes were popular. In Jan 1917 Queen Alexandra visited.

Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson in the centre 
plus dog

Ward rounds

The Hospital was a great success. In fact in Aug 1917 another new section was opened, with 60 beds set aside for women. And the timing was perfect. In 1918 new legislation gave the vote to women over 30. The Hospital staff celebrated this event by raising the Women's Social and Political Union flag in the Hospital courtyard.

Orig­in­ally intended as a temporary measure, the section for female patients finally closed in Jan 1919, by which time c2,000 women had been admitted for surgical or medical treatment. In December 1919,  the remaining parts of the hospital closed and later demolished.

Photo credits: BBC


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