First the Women Who Ran This U.K. Military Hospital Faced World War I. Then Came the 1918 Flu PandemicHistorians in the News
tags: public health, womens history, WW1, influenza
When war broke out in 1914, surgeon Louisa Garrett Anderson and her life partner and fellow physician, Flora Murray, saw that the crisis would create an urgent need for trained medical staff—and a unique opportunity to put their skills to use. Though women could qualify as doctors in the U.K., they were effectively barred from treating male patients and therefore excluded from mainstream medical practice. The war and the ensuing outbreak of “Spanish Flu” changed that, for a time—during which Anderson and Murray valiantly and resourcefully treated thousands of patients at the Endell Street Military Hospital, supported by a staff comprised almost entirely of women. In No Man’s Land, journalist Wendy Moore tells the women’s story in full for the first time:
Endell Street Military Hospital, November, 1918
The church bells that had rung so riotously to celebrate the Armistice were tolling now for funerals. Men returning from the front line, in a state of frenzied joy mingled with bewildered grief, were suddenly taking to their beds.
In Endell Street, patients and staff were developing fevers, aches and coughs at a rate that had never been seen before. The flu had returned. Having disappeared at the end of the summer, the virus had mutated into a deadlier, devastating new form.
The first signs that the flu had returned to Endell Street had been almost overlooked in the last push toward victory. Men and women arriving in convoys from France showed influenza symptoms in mid-October, when Dr. Vera Scantlebury had returned from a break to find “‘Spanish flu’ flying round the wards.” By the end of that month, with peace just within grasp, cases of the flu were “rolling in,” she noted, and the disease had spread to staff. Eleven orderlies had been struck down and admitted to “H” ward, where members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps were normally nursed. Now that the war’s outcome had been decided, the hospital was inundated with flu. Local civilians crowded the casualty room, coughing and sneezing, or arrived by ambulance in a worse state as they fell victim to the disease. By mid-November, “dozens of local sick” had been admitted. Between 50 and 60 patients at a time were seriously ill with pneumonia— often the final stage of the flu. Extra beds were made up on the wards and immediately filled, more nurses had to be recruited to replace those who fell ill, and the doctors worked without breaks.
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