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The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads:

A Woman Doctor in WW1

 

book cover for Isabella and the String of Beads

It was the inscription that made the antique scalpels so tantalising: ‘Isabella Stenhouse’. A woman doctor? A woman doctor who was rumoured to have served in the First World War? Could Isabella have treated wounded men with these very implements? And had a grateful German prisoner of war really given her the strange string of beads that tangled round her stethoscope?

Coaxing clues from archives across Europe, Katrina Kirkwood traces Isabella's route from medical school to the Western Front, Malta and Egypt, discovering as she travels that Dr Stenhouse was not only one of the first women doctors who worked with the British Army - she was also a woman carrying a tragic secret, torn between ambition and loyalty to her family.

Isabella’s story was selected for the BBC Antiques Roadshow’s WW1 centenary edition, and featured by national, international and local media.

'The quiet heroics of a woman on a WW1 battlefield' Daily Express

Reviews:

"A great deal has already been written on the Great War. Isabella's tale does not take us into the trenches but to the end of the casualty evacuation chain. It gives us an intimate and often emotional perspective of a woman doctor as she battles to succeed in her chosen profession. The narrative kept me captivated. I found myself unable to lay down the book until I reached the final full stop." Col. Walter Bonnici L/RAMC (Ret'd)

"Tonight I felt drawn to Isabella again and couldn't stop. I rarely re-read a book and even though I know this story I wanted to follow it through to the denouement - which I felt you gave me ... An expert might disagree with me, but this reader feels you will entice other readers to follow the trail too." Lila Haines, Director of Egino C.I.C.

"The writing's great, and you come away with a very strong composite picture of Isabella and her context. Really enjoyed reading it." Patrick Dillon, Author, architect and broadcaster.

"This non-fiction book balances two stories, one a biography, the other a mystery. The first story relates the compelling experiences of Isabella Stenhouse, an intrepid Edwardian who was one of the small minority of women in Scotland to be awarded a medical degree in the early years of the twentieth century. The book should strongly appeal to anyone with an interest in nontraditional accounts of the First World War and those who wish to learn more about women's history in the conflict. The second narrative, interwoven with Isabella Stenhouse's story, is the journey of Isabella's granddaughter and her quest to learn more about her grandmother's unusual war experience. This part of the story moves from archives in London to forgotten beaches in Alexandria. Using her imagination to speculate on Isabella's motives and to fill in blank spaces in Isabella's story, Kirkwood adroitly balances on the tightrope between fact and speculative opinion. Her account of the search for her grandmother's history should appeal to others who have embarked on a similar quest and is instructive for those who would like to investigate their ancestors' involvement in the Great War. An unusual book about an uncommon war experience, Kirkwood's fresh perspective on the First World War is a rewarding read." Connie Ruzich, Fulbright Scholar

"The combination of mystery, history and imagination are very well interwoven making this book a joy to read. Amazon 5* review An incredibly good read! I thought this book looked interesting but it exceeded all my expectations. I was gripped from near the start and didn't want to put it down. Fantastic language and riveting story telling is balanced expertly against historical fact. It hooks readers in and provides fascinating insight into some very brave women and the unique role they played in WWI. The personal touch of looking at one woman in particular makes the book even more interesting as you feel you can identify with her. I would highly recommend this book. Amazon 5* review It was not until author Katrina Kirkwood was presented with a collection of her grandmother's medical effects, a few photos and a beautifully-woven string of beads that she realised she knew absolutely nothing about the life of Isabella Stenhouse, a pioneering woman doctor of the early 20th Century. This is her journey of discovery.  In a Centenary market nearing saturation in both fiction and non-fiction about WW1, there is a need for books that take the reader into areas that haven't been explored as fully as they might be, and this one succeeds brilliantly in bringing this little-known aspect of women's history to light. As well as a tender tribute to a grandmother, it is history-telling at its best: immediate, visceral, heartfelt and ultimately extremely satisfying. Without doubt a five star read." Marina Maxwell, Writer, Blogger, Author, Melbourne, Australia.

 

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