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Review Book Club: Frontline heroes of Endell Street

A new book about a pioneering women’s hospital battling a deadly virus could not be more propitious, says Peter Gruner

24 April, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

A ward at Endell Street. Photo: Cookdickerman Collection, National Park Service, New York State

WOMEN running a hospital in Covent Garden fought to save lives in the First World War – and then battled a deadly disease with similarities to today’s pandemic.

Wendy Moore’s extraordinary new book, Endell Street: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran World War One’s Most Remarkable Military Hospital, could not be more timely.

It contains horrendous echoes of today’s coronavirus outbreak, with details of how thousands died in a similar flu epidemic in 1918.

After the Armistice that year, soldiers returning from the frontline in a state of “frenzied joy, mingled with bewildered grief,” were suddenly taking to their beds.

Hospital transport officer Mardie Hodgson with a special constable at the gate of the hospital. Photo: The Anderson family

Robert Graves, the writer and poet who had survived many battles, went home, collapsed into bed and was told by a doctor there was no hope for him. He managed to survive. But thousands succumbed to fevers, aches and coughs at a rate that had never been seen before.

The disease was so widespread and so destructive that entire families were struck down at once. Funeral parlours ran out of coffins and bodies piled up at mortuaries.

Buses and trams were cancelled for lack of staff, emergency services were dangerously stretched as police, fire and ambulance workers fell ill, and hospitals struggled to cope as nurses and doctors collapsed alongside their patients.

Throughout the war, the Endell Street women had saved thousands of soldiers from death and disability through a combination of surgical expertise, pioneering infection control, skilled nursing, dedicated physiotherapy and their unique brand of motivational spirit. But they were no match for the flu.

And if war and flu were not bad enough, Wendy also reveals the terrible sexist attitudes of men in Victorian times towards the few women doctors.

Hostility to the idea of women becoming doctors had intensified during the 1870s. One prominent doctor declared that he would rather follow his only daughter to the grave than allow her to study medicine.

The British Medical Journal feared the “Temple of Medicine” was “besieged by fair invaders”, while The Lancet warned of a potential “invasion of Amazons”.

Such views almost halted the setting up of the desperately needed military hospital in the first place, in a former workhouse in Endell Street, said to be the inspiration for Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

Speaking this week, Wendy said: “It was completely accepted that nurses were female. But it was taboo for women doctors to treat men. The main reason was that the medical profession was male dominated and women were seen as a threat.”

The new hospital, staffed almost entirely by women, was set up in 1915 by two doctors, Louisa Garrett Anderson, daughter of Britain’s first woman doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Flora Murray. They were both active suffragettes.

With 573 beds and huge numbers of injured male soldiers returning from war, three auxiliary hospital units were also opened in Highgate, Crouch Hill and Willesden.

The flu (nicknamed Spanish flu due to a misunderstanding) roared through the UK in the summer of 1918 with a deadlier mutation that winter. One wave killed 30,000 in one week in the UK. In London, 16,000 people died between September and November. The hospital used avant-garde isolation techniques and face masks, yet still lost 24 patients in two months. Much like today, the death rates shocked nurses and doctors alike.

“I had no idea when I started writing the book that it would become so sadly topical,” Wendy said.

Throughout the war years, in the face of appalling wounds and rampant infection, no more than eight soldiers died for every 1,000 patients treated at Endell Street – some 200 deaths in all.

Wendy describes the case of one flu casualty, Daisy Wadling, a driver with the Army Service Corps, which again will resonate with families of victims today.

One moment she had simply “caught a cold” and the next she was rapidly becoming more ill with what doctors realised was influenza. Daisy, 32, was dispatched by ambulance to Endell Street with a high fever. At first she seemed to rally, then suddenly pneumonia set in and the staff nursing her immediately telegraphed her family.

Wendy writes: “Her parents, John and Alice, arrived from their home in Dorking, Surrey, to find Daisy ‘quite sensible and cheerful’ and they left early that evening reassured.

“Within hours she had taken a turn for the worse – a typical response to the flu – and the staff wired the Wadlings to return. Rushing back to her bedside, John and Alice found their daughter unconscious; she died at midnight.”

Despite difficulties, the “Suffragettes” hospital’s reputation had spread far and wide. It was acclaimed for its popularity, efficiency and cheerful atmosphere.

Since it opened the hospital had treated more than 26,000 patients over four years, the vast majority of them men.

And yet even after the war women still struggled for equality in the medical profession. Not until 50 years later, and the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 when medical schools and hospitals were finally forced to accept women on an equal basis to men, did things start to change.

Nothing remains of the military hospital today. The old workhouse building was demolished and replaced in the 1980s with council flats.

Only the courtyard, the little square where the bell once tolled to announce the arrival of ambulance convoys, still survives. A slate plaque with the motto “Deeds not Words”, unveiled in 2008, is the only reminder that the hospital existed.

Wendy, a former Ham and High reporter, said she was inspired to write the book after coming across a painting by Francis Dodd of women in the Endell Street operating theatre.

She added: “The story of the hospital continues to inspire women. Those who founded it and all the pioneers who worked there are still proof of what women can do in deeds and words.”

Endell Street: The Trailblazing Women Who Ran World War One’s Most Remarkable Military Hospital. By Wendy Moore, Atlantic Books, £17.99.

Writer’s retreat – Wendy Moore’s self-isolation book selections

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon. It’s a beautifully unfolded story about two women in World War Two who are united by a secret that dates back to the previous war. It kept me guessing to the end.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A friend bought me this book and since then I’ve devoured all Strout’s novels. This remains my favourite. It’s a collection of short stories set in Maine, which all feature Olive Kitteridge from different perspectives. She starts out as a very unlikable character but by the end we have grown to understand and even to love Olive. She is quintessientlly human.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. American author Lorrie Moore is my favourite living writer and her short stories are superlative. They are quirky, strange and very, very funny. I re-read this collection frequently.

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