Miss Frances Ivens and the Scottish Women’s Hospital in France

Our new exhibition looks at the Scottish Women’s HospitalS (SWH), showcasing The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s Archival collection and the reflections of two local artists, Susie Wilson and Joan Smith. In addition we have been fortunate to receive a loan of materials once belonging to Miss Frances Ivens a leading figure in the SWH.

V.CC. Collum a colleague of Miss Frances Ivens once said:

‘Had there been no Elsie Inglis there would have been no Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Had there been no Miss Ivens there would never have been a Royaumont’.

Miss Ivens was a qualified Surgeon focusing on Obstetrics and Gynaecology, she became the first female consultant in Liverpool. When the war began she realised that the type of surgery she would be exposed to during wartime would be significantly different so began a study of amputations, fractures and gas gangrene.

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Dr Frances Ivens and Doctors in the Abbey Cloisters image RCSEd Archive

Miss Ivens was to lead the hospital based at Royaumont Abbey, north of Paris in France. The abbey was in a dire state when the women arrived with no electric lighting, heat or sanitation. Ivens set to work with her dedicated team and soon had the hospital ready for inspection by the French Red Cross. The hospital failed its first inspection and Ivens had to work hard to keep moral up but succeeded and opened on the 13th January 1915. Ivens also had to convince the French Red Cross that the women run hospital was capable of dealing with battle wounded causalities and not just ill soldiers by the daunting task of performing operations with the medical authorities watching closely over her shoulder.

However within a few months the hospital was fully operational and treating wounded soldiers from the front. The hospital was even asked to increase its beds to 200 becoming one of the biggest hospitals in the area. In 1915 Dr Louisa Martindale visited and worked in Royaumont, commenting that:

‘Most of all I was lost in admiration of the splendid organising and administrative powers of the CMO, Miss Ivens – of her endurance, courage and above all her surgical skill’.

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Frances Ivens, Cecily Hamilton and others at Royaumont Hospital, France 1914 (Image courtesy of RCSEd Archive

With the military campaigns of 1916, in particular the Somme, came a challenging time for the staff at Royaumont with another increase in beds and with everyone operating on very little sleep. Ivens became extremely successful in her treatment of Gas Gangrene which due to the horrendous trench conditions was a constant threat to the soldier’s wounds.

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Nurses at Villers-Cotterêts (Image courtesy of RCSED Archive

In 1917 the Royaumont volunteers opened another hospital at Villers-Cotterets. This was very close to the front line and was a series of wooden huts. Letters home describe harsh conditions including rats, mud and cold. The women operated under the threat of shell fire and often in candle light during raids and with the knowledge the German army were getting ever closer.

 

They were forced to retreat due to the German advance and Miss Ivens was on the last truck out with the remaining patients. For her work at the advanced post she was awarded France’s highest order of merit, the Croix de la Legion d’Honneu. With the citation reading:

‘Having ensured, day and night, the treatment of French and Allied wounded during repeated bombardment at Villers Cotterets in May 1918. On the approach of the enemy she withdrew her unit at the last moment to the Abbaye de Royaumont where she continued her humane mission with the most absolute devotion’

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From left to right: Croix de la Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre with palm and Medaille d’Honneur des Epidemies 

This L’Image newspaper cover on display is a fitting example of the high regard Miss Ivens was held in France and the gratitude felt for the extraordinary care she took of France’s soldiers and civilians.

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Chief surgeon of the Royaumont Hospital and the Volunteer Hospital, Villers Cotterets

This last piece on loan is a commemorative book presented to Miss Ivens at the completion of a year’s work at Royaumont in 1916. The book is a collective of images and illustrations of Royaumont Abbey and opens with a speech written by the youngest member of the SWH in France in which the women show their gratitude to their bold leader.

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‘Custom decrees that you must not speak well of a man to his face without offering him a presentation; our little presentation therefore is merely a peg on which to hang the expression of our thanks and admiration’

We in turn give our thanks to the Family of Mrs D.O.Pym for sharing with us this amazing collection which in turn allows us to tell the story of Miss Frances Ivens, her surgical abilities and her amazing work as leader of the Scottish Women’s Hospital in France.

The items will be on display until the end of March as part of Surgeons Hall Museums new temporary exhibition: Field Notes: Reflections of Camp Life at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. 

The images in this blog courtesy of RCSEd Library and Archives will soon be able to view, alongside many others, on a brand new online portal which launches at the end of November. For further information follow them on Twitter.

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