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Isabella as a child with her sisters

Isabella as a child with her sisters


Isabella as a medical student

Isabella as a medical student


Here's the article I wrote for Family Tree Magazine's blog:

A string of beads and a family mystery

Family tradition held that my grandmother, Isabella Lane (née Stenhouse), had served as a doctor during WW1 – but she never talked about it. Even on her 80th birthday, when she was presented with a huge tape-recorder and urged to record her memories, she still refused. The machine was untouched when she died 16 years later, leaving me her medical instruments and a mysterious string of beads – the gift, it was rumoured, of a grateful German prisoner of war. Sometimes I would look at the collection, wondering what story it could have told, but it was 40 years before I began to investigate.

That is probably a good thing. If I had tried to find out the truth in those pre-internet days, I would have discovered nothing and given up. Not only would Isabella’s story have remained untold but I would have missed out on a big adventure. As it is, the interconnected nature of archives and the generosity of the internet have had me dashing from Edinburgh to London, Guildford, Northern France, Malta, Leeds, Egypt ... I have followed Isabella into the buildings where she worked, discovered what she did and tried to learn how she felt. But the whole mission has raised questions.

I remember sitting in a café in France on the exact site of a hospital where my grandmother had tended wounded French soldiers in 1915. Straining for a sense of her presence, it struck me that she was not the one doing the haunting – it was me who was haunting her. I hesitated. Was I right to be dragging up a story that she had decided not to tell? Should I instead respect her silence and cease my probing?

At that point, as far as I could see, Isabella’s reluctance to tell her tale resembled that of many other veterans – it protected her from traumatic memories. Since my investigations could no longer cause her distress and I had discovered many reasons why she could have been proud, I decided to carry on.

Trawling libraries and archives, I searched out writings of the time, examined reports, studied carefully researched non-fiction from later decades – and drew the line at fiction. However enticing, however vivid, allowing fiction into my thinking seemed to invite slippage from truth and accuracy – except that the more I explored, the more I was forced to question what ‘truth and accuracy’ actually meant.

I remember visiting a former hospital in Malta. Upstairs, my imagination had been well and truly fired by the real possibility that Isabella had actually operated in that space, wielding the very implements that I had inherited. My research had allowed me to ‘see’ her, scrubbed-up, standing beside the operating table. I had ‘heard’ the flies and ‘smelled’ the anaesthetics. Now, downstairs, I was determined to stick rigidly to the facts for fear of drifting into inaccuracy – until I noticed a photograph on the wall that completely altered my thinking.

The picture revealed that when Isabella worked here, the building had not been bare stone as it was now, it had been covered in dark paint. I was shaken – I had been convinced I was seeing what my grandmother had seen. But I had been wrong. OK, paint was trivial, but how many more important facts were lurking out there, waiting to alter the ‘truth’ the other facts had seemed to portray?

More cautiously, I carried on investigating, Then, towards the end, when I had almost discovered as much as I needed, the commemorations began: huge ceremonies in honour of various different aspects of WW1 in every corner of the globe. I began to ask myself if I could do something to honour my grandmother’s amazing story, her contribution to that conflict.

The plan became obvious and, in May 2015, I made my way onto an empty Egyptian beach. It felt scary, I was on my own and the authorities were unlikely to appreciate what I was about to do. Yet as I scraped hurriedly at the sand to carry out my task, I was keenly aware that my small act of homage required nothing like the courage my silent grandmother had needed every day of that horrendous war.

The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in World War I by Katrina Kirkwood is published by Loke Press. Both paperback and eBook are available on Amazon and from all good bookshops.


Isabella's medical instruments

Isabella's medical miscellany

Isabella at her graduation

Isabella at her graduation

Isabella with the army in Malta, 1916

Isabella with the army in Malta, 1916

Close-up of Isabella's beads

A close up of Isabella's beads


Here's the article I wrote for Oxford University's WW1 blog, Continuations and Beginnings:

Why July 1916 was an important month for professional women

When I set out to trace exactly what my grandmother, Dr Isabella Stenhouse, had done in WW1, one document particularly intrigued me: her offer to serve with the British Army. This seemed to make little sense because, so far as I knew, the army had, with one exception[i], refused to work with any of the many women doctors eager to do their patriotic duty.

This had left medical women with a conundrum. Either they stayed in civilian work, taking up the slack left by male colleagues departing for war, or they joined an independent hospital in France or Serbia and treated the wounded of Britain’s allies. Isabella chose the latter and served in the Anglo-Ethiopian Hospital in France.

However, as the war dragged on, the army’s need for doctors grew. Not only did the battle zones demand a constant supply, but many of the casualties required medical treatment that lasted for months or years. How was the military imperative to be met without threatening the health needs of the civilian population – the miners and factory workers whose work was vital if the war was to be won?

In December 1915 the Scottish Medical Service Emergency Committee[ii] attempted to find out where each doctor was working and what help each one was prepared to offer. 3397 doctors replied to the questionnaire. Isabella, one of only fourteen women among 527 doctors listed in the Edinburgh area, volunteered herself for ‘Group B (45 to 55) Part-time home military work.’ She was only 28, but what would have been the point of offering ‘Group A (under 45) Lieut. RAMC’ when there was no chance of the army taking her on?

Dr Isabella Stenhouse, un-uniformed and wearing a brimmed hat, working with the RAMC in Malta, 1916/17

When conscription was introduced in spring 1916, the medical profession was a reserved occupation but, in June, the Director General Army Medical Services, Lt-General Sir Alfred Keogh called for, “… the mobilization of the whole of the medical services of this country for its civil needs on such lines as shall enable the pressing requirements of the Army to be met with the least possible injury to the civilian population.”

A journalist commented that “[Sir Alfred’s] scheme … is calculated to bring into the fold of national service every medical man who has the interests of his country at heart.”[iii] He had perhaps not heard of Sir Alfred’s other plan. The Director General and his advisors had been observing the professionalism and skill of medical women across the war zone and they had changed their minds: it was time to enlist the help of the medical women. A letter was sent to every woman on the medical register.

Long afterwards, Dr Letitia Fairfield remembered, “In 1916 came a sudden and urgent appeal from the War Office for medical women to serve in Malta, Egypt, and in military hospitals at home. The reason (which had to be secret) for this reversal of policy was a demand for a large reserve of doctors to supply contemplated campaigns in the Mediterranean, at a moment when doctors were already extremely scarce.”[iv]

The War Office’s about-turn at last gave Isabella and her fellow women doctors a chance to use their professional skills for their own countrymen. Yet, the men in charge of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) were cautious. Despite working with thousands of nurses, their views as to the capabilities of women were fixed. They were certain, for example, that women doctors were unsuited to working in any spot that might come under fire. They were confident that medical women could never command a company because of the reluctance of the men to serve under women. Their solution was threefold:

They sent the women to Malta, which was busy, but where there was little risk of fighting.
They refused them the right to wear the uniform and badges of the RAMC.
They denied them the temporary commissions automatically given to volunteering male doctors.
These conditions of service ignored the fact that the Boer War had proved it was impossible for volunteering male doctors to function properly within the RAMC without uniform and commissioned rank. The women apparently considered the conditions so ‘deplorable’ that they ‘only accepted … them on the grounds of grave national emergency.’[v]

Isabella signed up on 24th July 1916. On 12th August she set sail for Malta with fifteen other medical women[vi] – Scottish, Irish, English, a New Zealander, a woman from India, suffragists, old hands, young doctors who had worked in France and Serbia, one who had been imprisoned in Serbia and another who had been awarded a medal. All were ready not only to help win the war but also to make the most of this chance to prove they were as good as the men – it was one more opportunity to break down the barriers they faced as professional women.

Dr Isabella Stenhouse’s contract with the War Department, July 1916

[i] Geddes, J.F. (2006). The Women’s Hospital Corps: forgotten surgeons of the First World War. J Med Biogr. 14(2):109-17.

[ii]Index of Doctors in Scotland During The First World War | Index to Doctors in Scotland during the First World War

[iii] Medical Mobilization. (FROM OUR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT.). The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Jun 13, 1916; pg. 3; Issue 41192.

[iv] Fairfield, L et. al. Medical Women in the Forces. JMWF, 49, 1967, p.99

[v] Fairfield et al, ibid.

[vi]Stenhouse Isabella– Lady doctors of the Malta Garrison

Cite : Why July 1916 was an important month for professional women (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=3733) by Katrina Kirkwood (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/author/kkirkwood/) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)




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