by Libby Sternberg
When I was growing up, all the doctors in my life were men — from our general practitioner to specialists. I first encountered a female physician after having children. Our pediatrician at the time was a wonderful woman who combined medical science with an artful understanding of being a mother herself. She was a blessing.
The way for her and other women doctors was paved by physicians like Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, the two physicians at the center of No Man’s Land, an informative look at how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the fiercely male world of medicine.
The two women came of age during the UK suffragette movement in the early 1900s, with Anderson even serving jail time for some of her protesting activities. This was how these doctors met, in fact, during suffragette meetings and protests. They soon became friends and professional colleagues, eventually living their lives together as a couple.
Because men controlled staff appointments at hospitals, the women doctors were barred from those jobs by small-minded doctors who didn’t want women among their ranks. Murray wrote an article in the New Statesman in 1913, justifiably angry at this practice, especially when men of lesser abilities effortlessly rose in the ranks:
“Staff appointments are professional prizes. They are made by the council or governing body, generally consisting entirely of men, upon the advice of a medical staff composed entirely of men. They are usually given to men.”
Shut out of hospitals, they started their own together, a small facility catering to women and children, an area to which most women doctors at the time were relegated, regardless of their expertise.
Then…World War I began. While the suffragette movement was put on hold during those fearsome years, Murray and Anderson understood that medical care for the wounded would be such a paramount concern that they could finally be accepted by male colleagues and join the fight to save lives.
Still, it wasn’t easy. They had to battle stiff resistance among hidebound medical officers and prove themselves by setting up their own hospitals in France, financed by donations, many of them from sister suffragettes.
They started two such facilities, one in Paris and one closer to the coast where wounded men were eventually transported back to London, and showed they were more than equal to the task. They did so well, in fact, that eventually Alfred Keogh, the most senior physician in the British Army at the time, asked them to set up a military hospital in London to deal with a surge of casualties expected from an upcoming push on the front.
Thus the Endell Street Military Hospital was born. From spring 1915 to the end of the war and beyond, Murray and Anderson ran the hospital with a staff of all women. All employees and volunteers, from physicians to anesthetists to nurses to orderlies, were women. Murray’s organizational skills had the facility humming in record time, and Anderson’s surgical skills meant they operated on a record number of patients per day during high casualty initiatives at the front (think of every battle name of that war, from Ypres to the Somme and more, to imagine the flow of men under their care).
No Man’s Land takes you through this war — military, medical, and societal — in small details. All physicians, including Murray and Anderson, had to grapple with new wounds caused by new killing machines. No clear-through bullet holes but grisly shrapnel injuries resulting in fractured bones, mustard gas burns that scorched lungs, shell shock, and the ever-present infections that might take a life in an era before antibiotics.
No Man’s Land leads the reader up to Armistice and beyond, when the hospital took in civilian patients, too, now sick and dying from the “Spanish flu.”
While women gained a (limited) right to vote during this period, the struggle for female physicians persisted. Men returning from the war eased back into their jobs, pushing out women who’d been handling them. And male doctors’ attitudes about women in their profession rebounded to their original peevishness, shutting out female physicians once again from staff positions.
This lasted a long, long time, as my childhood attests, when almost all doctors were men and women were nurses. Societal change is a long, hard slog, and No Man’s Land demonstrates how difficult it is to change minds and hearts even when evidence of change’s benefits stares one in the face.