Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2019: Fight the Power

Band of sisters: the female doctors who became war heroes against the odds

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 17 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6747
  1. Chris Holme, freelance historian
  1. Gullane, East Lothian
  1. cholme{at}

Rejected by the British war effort in 1914 because they were women, a band of medics took their considerable skills across the channel to France. Chris Holme traces their story with the help of newly available documents

In the summer of 1914 the British War Office turned down a generous offer from a Scottish physician, Elsie Inglis, to set up a military hospital entirely staffed by women. She was told to “go home and sit still.”

Undeterred, Inglis found a willing host in France. Against all odds, the all female organisation she set up established the longest serving voluntary hospital treating French soldiers on the western front in the first world war, holding together in the face of horrendous waves of casualties.

By the war’s end, they were back home and exhausted. And there it might have all ended. But the sisterly bonds of comradeship forged at Royaumont Hospital—a generation before those recounted in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers—were so strong that the women continued to meet for more than 50 years. Now their newsletters are available online, providing fresh insight into their experiences.1

Gusto and ingenuity

Inglis founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals with the help of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Volunteers and money poured in from Britain and around the world.

It created valuable opportunities for medical women, who were barred …

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