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Saturday, 19 October 2013


My cousin Mabel Gurney graduated from Edinburgh University’s school of medicine in 1903, an early woman doctor following in the footsteps of the campaigning pioneer Sophia Jex-Blake. I wrote about Mabel’s training in a previous post; but her career after qualification was no less impressive.

Edinburgh Medical School,pictured in 1906, three years after the graduation of Dr Mabel Gurney 

Her widowed mother Phebe Gurney née Whitchurch, who had supported her medical training at a time when most widows expected their youngest daughters to stay at home looking after them, died soon after she graduated. By 1911 Dr Mabel Gurney was a school medical officer employed by the Cambridge Education Committee.

No doubt that was considered an appropriate job for a woman doctor; but it can hardly have challenged Mabel, for whom the decision at the age of 30 to enter medical school must have been a brave and bold one. She won a bronze medal in her first year for practical anatomy, and had proved then that she was not squeamish about the human body; but far greater challenges lay ahead.

 Australian and Ottoman dead at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, 1915

Mabel came from a Baptist family, for whom duty to God and public service were intertwined. Although she never knew her grandfather William Brodie Gurney, a leading Baptist of his day, his influence illuminated the family for many generations after his death. But she may have been guided even more by the example of a string of strong, active Gurney women.

Among them were her great aunt Martha, a pioneering campaigner against slavery, her great grandmother Rebecca Gurney née Brodie who started a school for local children, and her aunt Emma (my 2x great grandmother) who founded women’s groups. In her own generation her cousin Catherine was awarded an OBE for her work in establishing the first Police convalescent homes and orphanages in Britain. The great social reformer Elizabeth Fry was also a distant Gurney cousin.

Louisa Aldrich-Blake, the first British woman to graduate with a Master's Degree in Surgery

Consequently, when in the spring of 1916 Miss Louisa Aldrich-Blake appealed to the country’s female doctors, Mabel was one of 80 who stepped forward. Miss Blake was surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women (founded by Sophia Jex-Blake), and she realised just how overwhelmed the Royal Army Medical Corps was by the scale of injuries being incurred by British forces in the First World War. Indeed, the RAMC itself was suffering heavy casualties – nearly 7000 RAMC medical personnel died in the course of the war.

The notoriously disastrous campaign in Gallipoli was responsible for many of them – a quarter of a million dead and injured on each side of the conflict. Wounded survivors from the allied forces were evacuated to field hospitals in Malta and Egypt, and it was to Malta that Mabel and 47 of her colleagues were shipped in October 1916. There they were joined a month later by a further 33 “lady doctors,” none of them given the rank, uniforms, or ration and billeting allowances granted to every male doctor. 

Soldiers recuperating at Valletta Military Hospital

The women were attached to the RAMC and served principally in four Maltese hospitals – St David's Hospital, St Andrew's Hospital, St George's Hospital, and the Valletta Military Hospital. There they treated the injured of Gallipoli and the unsuccessful Salonika campaign; but they also had to contend with several outbreaks of disease including malaria, dysentery and enteric fever. Mabel’s main role was probably as a surgeon, but she is known to have attended in January 1917 the funeral of one of her colleagues, Isabella Tate, who was in charge of the bacteriological unit in the Valetta Hospital.

Soon after the funeral, Mabel was transferred to Egypt where she remained in service until 1919. Perhaps she administered to my cousin Will Piper of the Imperial Camel Corps, which had been formed there from the remnants of several Gallipoli cavalry units. Will died of pneumonia in an Egyptian field hospital in February 1919, two months before Mabel finally returned to Britain and resumed her post with the Cambridge Education Committee.

I know nothing (yet) of Mabel’s later life. She never married, and died in the same Norfolk parish of Runton in which, apart from the war years, she had lived all her life. 136,000 men were treated on Malta by Dr Mabel Gurney and her colleagues. Women accounted for 80 of the 245 doctors who treated them.

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