Scalpels. Forceps. Stethoscope. Other miscellaneous surgical instruments. And an intricately woven string of beads. These were the legacy that Isabella Stenhouse gave to her granddaughter, Katrina Kirkwood. But not the stories to go with them – of serving as a doctor in France, Malta and Egypt in WW1.
There came a point when Kirkwood realized that her grandmother’s war exploits were extraordinary for a woman of the time. In The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, she sets out to learn about her grandmother’s early life.
The book is as much a story about Katrina’s journey as it is about Isabella’s adventures. Facts often prove elusive. Digging through dusty archive files is tedious. She struggles not to interpret early 20th century behaviour through 21st century lenses. Despite her impressive research skills, there are false starts and dead ends. And sometimes luck is on her side with chance finds. Does she discover the entire story? No. At times she extrapolates from what she learns generally about female doctors and at times she settles for a best guess. But every conclusion is plausible, based on the available information.
Isabella Stenhouse was one of the first women in Scotland to graduate from medical school. When Britain declared war shortly after, the government was clear in refusing women doctors for service. But women found ways around officialdom. Perhaps the most famous is Dr Elsie Inglis, who worked with the French government and founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Russia and Serbia. Isabella was hired by Lilian Doughty-Wylie, benefactor and head of the Anglo-Ethiopian Hospital* in France.
Thanks to Doughty-Wylie’s journals, we have a good account of Isabella’s time there … the gore of wounds in the surgery, the struggles to acquire proper supplies, the political and interpersonal tensions, the friendships. Marie Curie shows up with a portable x-ray machine.
When Britain grudgingly accepted women doctors in 1916, the Anglo-Ethiopian Hospital had closed and Isabella was back at home. She balanced family tragedy and professional duty, being posted to Malta and then to Egypt.
The book touches on the deliberations and strategies of groups like the Association of Registered Medical Women to use the war as a vehicle for the women to prove their worth. They ultimately could serve, but with limitations placed on them. Having no rank or uniform in the military, for example, made their job more difficult.
In searching for her grandmother’s war stories, Kirkwood recovers and honours a lost perspective.
Thanks to Katrina Kirkwood for sending me her book for review consideration. Read my interview with her here.
* The Anglo-Ethiopian Hospital??? Doughty-Wylie and her husband were at the British Legation in Addis Ababa when war was declared. Just as she was about to leave for Europe to set up her hospital,
the young Emperor designate of Ethiopia, Lij Yasu, paid them a visit. He was not alone. With him came a herd of four hundred horned Ethiopian bulls, snuffling and shuffling under the blue Ethiopian sky. Lij Yasu presented them to her, explaining that they were for soup for the wounded soldiers. I picture the most minute muscles of her face twitching as she forces the etiquette of gratitude to hide her sheer consternation as to what to do with these beasts. Thankfully, she declares, one of the Prince’s courtiers had a more practical turn of mind. There and then he bought the whole herd, leaving her a useful sum to turn into broth. In tribute to the royal soup-provider, they named the hospital the ‘Anglo-Ethiopian’ and flew the striped Ethiopian flag beside the Union Jack.