Field Notes: Reflections of Camp Life at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Our Assistant Curator gives us a glimpse into the latest temporary exhibition to open at Surgeons’ Hall Museums. 

Opening in time for the 100 year anniversary of the armistice our next temporary exhibition is a reflection of the experiences of the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were field hospitals set up, run and managed entirely by women. The concept was first offered to the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War, who declined the offer, instead the SWH served Britain’s allies in France, Serbia, Corsica, Malta, Russia, Romania and Greece. The women in these units served as Surgeons, Doctors, Nurses, drivers, orderlies and cooks.

Inspired by the impressive SWH archives held by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh two local artists, Joan Smith and Susie Wilson have created an array of artwork reflecting the experiences and the stories of the women serving in these units. This unique exhibition will bring together the archival material and artworks to highlight the amazing stories from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Joan Smith is an artist based in Edinburgh and is acting Head of Art at Edinburgh College of Art. In her research and teaching Joan has a longstanding interest in medical history and anatomical collections. Joan was particularly interested in the collection of glass lantern slides showing images of the women during the war. These slides were used by the women back home who were constantly fundraising to provide the women in the field with supplies and for lectures to raise awareness of what was being accomplished by these remarkable women. The address on the box indicates the slides belonged to a Miss Lindsay of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Association for Women’s Suffrage.

Shelter’ Oil on Copper, 10x10cm  by Joan Smith

Joan’s paintings on copper respond to the material qualities and scale of the lantern slides as well as their haunting images.

Susie Wilson trained as a printmaker and for the past twelve years the book form has been central to her practice. She is a member of bound:unbound , a collective of artists who make and exhibit artists’ books. She was invited Artist in Residence at Edinburgh College of Art Library in 2016. Susie teaches for the Centre for Open Learning, Edinburgh University , Edinburgh Council,  Leith School of Art and  community groups in and around Edinburgh.

Susie was inspired by the written descriptions of ‘discomforts of camp life’ from the archival documents and also from the lantern slides, again often working on a small scale similar to the size of the slides themselves. Her prints and drawings convey the ambiguous, blurry quality of the glass slides with the stark whiteness of the clothing, tents and mosquito nets.


‘Tents’ 9cmx6.5cm ink on postcard by Susie Wilson

The artworks will be shown alongside archival material relating to the Scottish Women’s Hospital including scrapbooks detailing camp life, official and personal letters and of course the beautiful lantern slides.

Untitled design (17)
Drawing of a Camp map from the Ostrovo camp scrapbook 1918. Images courtesy of RCSEd Archive. 

The SWH were often very close to the front line with members describing operating during shell attacks and treating soldiers from both sides of the conflict. In one photograph album from Salonika in Greece an image shows the grave site or Miss Harley who was sadly killed by a shell whilst working with locals in Monastir. It was not only the threat of warfare that posed a great threat to the women but also illnesses from major epidemics. Four women lost their lives whilst bravely treating those suffering from a Typhus outbreak in Serbia and another was tragically killed when her vehicle came off the road in bad weather conditions in Kosovo. The dangers these women faced were vast and this exhibition is a beautiful means of honoring their work and service.

The exhibition is open on Saturday 10th November, just in time for remembrance Sunday and will run through until the end of March next year.




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