Life

Radio review: Inspiring tale of female medical trailblazers during the Great War

Nuala McCann

Endell Street Book of the week Radio 4

The names Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were not familiar to me. They were women doctors at a time when that was a rarity.

They met as suffragettes in the early 1900s fighting for women's rights.

Anderson refused to pay tax and spent four weeks in Holloway Prison for smashing a window in London in 1912.

Murray spoke out against force feeding suffragette prisoners – it could have cost her career.

Together they brought their passion for medicine first to Paris – where they operated on World War I soldiers in what had once been an upmarket hotel – and on to Endell Street, the only British Army hospital staffed and run entirely by women during the Great War.

Wendy Moore's book, Endell Street – a Book of the Week on Radio 4 - tells the story of these two trailblazers.

Moore has mined letters and diaries to portray these two life partners who were utterly dedicated to their hospital.

The wards at Endell Street all had saints' names, not numbers. They were decorated with colourful quilts and fresh flowers because these women recognised that the horrors of World War I inflicted wounds on the mind as well as the body.

The story echoes with the voices of women who worked alongside them, among them a young woman – Nina - who started as a ward orderly but was sent to work in the laundry because the horrors of what she saw affected her so.

Thousands of soldiers were brought in from the battlefields.

There were moments of joy – the operation that gave a man back the use of his arm; the new antiseptic ointment so effective that a man's foot was saved rather than amputated.

The final cruel twist came at the end of the war with the Spanish flu which claimed many of the lives of staff who had worked so hard to save others.

There are other cruelties. After the war, the medical schools stopped taking in women. They were sidelined again.

This book of the week sits alongside Vera Brittain's brilliant Testament of Youth.

It was inspiring listening.

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