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RCOG and the Scottish Women's Hospitals, 1914-18

As a follow-up to the College’s recognition of the participation of its Fellows and Members during the First World War, we are focusing on four women in obstetrics and gynaecology who bravely volunteered their services with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War.

The Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) movement was founded in 1914 soon after the outbreak of war in response to the rejection of medical women joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. Elsie Inglis, the founder of the SWH wrote to Millicent Fawcett, the prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, October 1914:

‘I cannot think of anything more calculated to bring home to men the fact that women can help intelligently in any kind of work. So much of our work is done where they cannot see it. They’ll see every bit of this.’

Many of these women joined privately-sponsored organisations and offered to help Britain’s allies, such as Dr Louisa Anderson and Dr Flora Murray who established a surgical hospital staffed by women in Paris. The British Red Cross were hampered by the War Office regulations regarding the work of women and so were unable to help Elsie Inglis and her new movement – thus the SWH had to act independently.

The First French Unit of the SWH arrived in France in December 1914 and formed a base hospital at Royaumont Abbey, on the outskirts of Paris. The first of several Serbian units followed soon after. By the end of the war 14 Scottish Women’s Hospitals had worked in six different countries, involving over a 1000 women, providing nursing services, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks and orderlies.

Women of the units suffered captivity in Serbia, experienced bombardment in France, and met challenging environments and tasks with a sense of duty and adventure. Women who had trained in medicine were generally enlightened and from good backgrounds, all essential to gain the education and training at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers only. These women raised funds for the hospitals when at home and actively worked to improving hygiene and management of disease when out in the field.

Among these women were four Foundation Fellows and Members of the RCOG:

(Mary Hannah) Frances Ivens Knowles (1871-1944)

Frances Ivens KnowlesFrances Ivens Knowles was Honorary Surgeon on the staff of the Liverpool Maternity Hospital and the Samaritan Hospital. During the First World War she was head of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit posted in France where she converted the Abbaye de Royaumont into a military hospital. At the request of the military authorities she started another advance hut hospital at Villers-Cotterets and was involved in operating under active shell fire in March 1918 during the German advance. For her service she was appointed chevalier of the Legion of Honour and awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm and the Medaille des Epidemies at the end of the war.

Image from the Imperial War Museums of Frances Ivens, reproduced under Creative Commons

Dame Anne Louise McIlroy (1878-1968)

Dame Anne Louise McIlroyDame McIlroy was among the first of the women medical graduates, and held the post of Gynaecological Surgeon at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow between 1906 and 1910. Having been rejected by the British Government as medical support to the military, she was accepted by the French, and commanded a unit of the hospital at Troyes, France, before being posted to Serbia and Salonika.In Salonika she established a nurses’ training school for Serbian girls, and finished here service as a Surgeon at a RAMC hospital in Constantinople.

After the war, she returned to Glasgow, but in 1921 was appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the London School of Medicine for Women, becoming the first woman to be appointed a medical professor in the UK. She was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1929 for her services to midwifery. Dame Louise was a major supporter of the case for founding the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and used her contacts in other medical organisations and on government to smooth the path for the College’s establishment. As one of the few female Foundation Fellows of the new College, Dame Louise also sat on the first Council.

Photograph of Dame Louise McIlroy, reproduced from the RCOG Archive, Reference RCOG/PH15/3

Margaret Fairlie (1891-1963)

Louisa MartindaleProfessor Margaret Fairlie was emeritus professor of midwifery in the University of St. Andrews. She was a Foundation Member of the College and was elevated to the Fellowship in 1936: in 1955 she was elected to serve on the Council. During the First World War, Margaret Fairlie served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont as an orderly.

Photograph of Margaret Fairlie, reproduced from the papers of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club, Reference S108/2, RCOG Archive

Louisa Martindale (1872-1966)

Margaret FairlieLouisa Martindale was senior surgeon of the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, as well as a pioneer of the treatment of breast cancer by radiotherapy. She spent her vacations during the First World War supporting the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit at Royaumont. She was a Foundation Member of the College and was elevated to the Fellowship in 1935, serving on the College Council between 1934 and 1938. She was President of the Medical Women’s International Association, and of the Medical Women’s Federation, and her association with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies supported her concern to promote opportunities for women.

Photograph of Louisa Martindale, reproduced from the papers of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club, Reference S108/2, RCOG Archive

Elsewhere on the site

History of the RCOG
Information about the history of the College and the development of the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology
About the College
Information about the RCOG’s current work to improve women's health care worldwide