Remembering the remarkable female medics who served in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

John Bellany's wife Helen Bellany and  Rt Hon Tricia Marwick MSP opened the exhibition at the Scottsh Parliament. The exhibition explores the work of the Scottish Women's hospitals during the First World War. Pic: Julie Bull.
John Bellany's wife Helen Bellany and Rt Hon Tricia Marwick MSP opened the exhibition at the Scottsh Parliament. The exhibition explores the work of the Scottish Women's hospitals during the First World War. Pic: Julie Bull.

They did an amazing job and were given very little recognition for their efforts during World War One.

Yet very little has been said about the remarkable story of the hard-working female medics from across Scotland who worked in terrible conditions to treat injured soldiers during the 1914-1918 conflict.

Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh doctor, who came up with the idea for the Scottish Women's Hospitals.

Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh doctor, who came up with the idea for the Scottish Women's Hospitals.

For the first time, more than 100 years later, their extraordinary work has been revealed in a public exhibition at the Scottish Parliament.

It is finally enabling people to find out more about the important role the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) played.

Featuring as part of the display are previously unseen oil paintings and drawings by the late Scottish artist John Bellany. He was so inspired by the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, he created the pieces – drawing on his own experience of serious illness, surgery and nursing care over the years.

The exhibition, which runs until April 16, includes a poem inspired by Bellany’s works by Scotland’s former Makar, Liz Lochhead.

Margaret Cowie Crowe was from Falkirk. In 1915 she travelled with SWH to Serbia. She nursed in Mladenovac, Kragujevac and Kraljevo. Pic credit: Janey Smith.

Margaret Cowie Crowe was from Falkirk. In 1915 she travelled with SWH to Serbia. She nursed in Mladenovac, Kragujevac and Kraljevo. Pic credit: Janey Smith.

Archive photographs, film and objects on loan from public and private collections also give us a more detailed insight into the hospitals’ work.

Did you know that more than 1500 women worked in 14 makeshift medical units, across war zones in France, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia and on the Russian front in Romania, taking care of sick and wounded servicemen?

These hospitals were staffed almost entirely by female doctors, nurses and support staff from across Scotland – as well as other countries – and were funded by communities throughout the UK and beyond.

The hospitals were the brainchild of Edinburgh doctor Elsie Inglis, who was a leading member of the women’s suffrage movement.

Initially, she wanted to establish a Scottish Women’s Hospital in the UK, but her hopes were dashed when she submitted her idea to the War Office in Edinburgh.

Famously she was told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.” However, she did exactly the opposite.

Elsie offered female doctors, nurses, medical officers, administrators, matrons, cooks, clerks and sanitary officers to countries overseas and their help was gratefully received.

Women from Fife, Falkirk, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Glasgow signed up and, within a few months, the first hospital was established in France, at Abbayne de Royamont, under chief medical officer Dr Frances Ivens.

Before they could even begin to help the wounded, the SWH staff first had to clear out a building where the unit would be based. The inside had to be gutted and scrubbed before the hospital was set up with wards, an operating theatre, x-ray room and dispensary. And there was no heating, lighting or hot water.

After the building was prepared, the makeshift hospital was ready for action.

SWH units were rolled out, treating soldiers who had been hurt with shrapnel injuries during heavy shelling. There were also patients suffering from gangrine, frost-bite and advanced infections.

One SWH nurse was quoted as saying: “The surgeons did not stop to search for shrapnel and pieces of metal.

“Their one aim was to open up and clean out the wounds or cut off the mortifying limb before the dreaded gangrene.”

As the war progressed, the medics dealt with more complicated fractures and head injuries, many a result of trench warfare. The administrators, meanwhile, had the ongoing job of ordering and managing medical supplies.

Many of the volunteers were in their 30s, came from wealthy backgrounds and were unmarried – and they were proving they could make just as important a contribution to the war effort as their male counterparts.

Catriona Baird, exhibition curator, said the Scottish Women’s Hospitals were finally wound up in 1922.

She said: “After the war, many of the women who had gone out to these hospitals felt they couldn’t leave.

“They stayed to train nurses in the country they were based in and helped set up children’s homes.

“Their skills were also needed during the Spanish flu epidemic which spread across Europe from 1920-22.”

Tragically, not all of the medical staff returned home.

A total of 21 women who supported various medical missions died in Serbia after contracting typhus and other infectious diseases.

But the country never forgot, paying tribute to the women with street names and plaques dedicated to them.

Tricia Marwick, Scottish Parliament presiding officer, said: “We are grateful to these women for what they did. They had an important role to play in the war effort. They did an amazing job and it is a privilege to bring their story to the people of Scotland.”

* The exhibition runs until Saturday, April 16.

Members of the public can view the display daily from 10am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays.

Female doctors and medical staff who served their country with pride

Women across the country served in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). Full details can be found at www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk. However, they included: Adeline Campbell from Kirkcaldy who was educated at St Andrews University. She served as a doctor in Kragujevac, Serbia. She went on to work at an infectious diseases ward in Belgrade. Adeline was awarded the Honour Red Cross, Military Cross and Order of St Sava 5th Class from Serbia. Margaret Cowie Crowe was from Falkirk. In 1915 she travelled with SWH to Serbia. She nursed in Mladenovac, Kragujevac and Kraljevo. 
Jean Paton Gordon was born in Montrose. She studied medicine at Edinburgh University and qualified as a doctor. In May 1915 she took the post of doctor with the SWH at Troyes in France. In October 1915 she returned to work at the Edinburgh War Hospital.

Agnes Mann was from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. Before heading to Serbia, she worked as matron at a hospital in Lanarkshire. Agnes worked at Kraguevac as a nurse from June 1915 to April 1916.

Louisa Jordan was born in Maryhill, Glasgow. She signed up with the SWH as a nurse on December 1, 1914 and joined the 1st Serbian unit. She worked in Kraguievac and died of typhus.