Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Book Review: “The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in World War 1” by Katrina Kirkwood, published by Loke Press, Norwich, UK, 2016.

Having been researching the role of women during WW1 for the past six years for a series of commemorative exhibitions, I was thrilled when Katrina Kirkwood approached me via this weblog to ask me to review her book about her Grandmother.  Katrina, a former medical research scientist, is the author of this wonderful book about her Grandmother, Isabella Stenhouse (1887 - 1952).  

Isabella trained as a doctor in the early 20th Century, following in the footsteps of one of my childhood heroines, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose bravery and determination to become a doctor paved the way for women to study medicine.  Working only with a small box of medical equipment, some old family photographs and a string of beads that belonged to her Grandmother, in a feat of detective work worthy of the great Lord Peter Wimsey, Katrina weaves the story of her grandmother’s service as a doctor during the First World War.

I don’t want to give too much away because you really need to read this book, but I particularly enjoyed reading about Katrina’s journeys to the places in which Isabella worked during WW1. In each place Katrina describes imagining what those places would have looked like in WW1 and what her Grandmother would have done and how she would have felt.   She also has some very interesting interviews with local inhabitants who try to help solve Isabella’s WW1 mysteries.

I also like the way Katrina chose to involve modern women medical students, women doctors and women medics with the British Royal Army Medical Corps who have seen active service.  This helps to establish how Isabella might have felt when she was treating the wounded.

On p. 206, I was interested to read that In 1913, 4% of the 98 medical students at Edinburgh University were women;  by 1918, the number had risen and 28% of the 1,700 odd students were women.  And there was a surprisingly heart-warming story of a French soldier who was to have his foot amputated.  Further on in the book, when Isabella was posted to Malta, you will find more fascinating information, for instance about enemy Prisoners of War detained on the island.  Mention of the names of other women who were doctors during WW1 and some of those who were nurses is also extremely interesting.

I was also interested to see that Katrina  had visited Hadra Cemetery in Alexandria, Egypt - see post on 12th December 1917 regarding the loss of HMS "Osmanieh".

I do hope Katrina will give me permission to write up an exhibition panel about Isabella.  Exhibition panels are sent out via e-mail free of charge to any venue wishing to host an exhibition. Topics covered are Female Poets, Inspirational Women, Fascinating Facts (such as how the Laughing Cow got her name) and Forgotten (male) Poets.  For anyone interested, I can supply the list of panels researched so far.