A woman in wartime: Molly Newhouse

Show Navigation

By | From the Collections

WORLD WAR II: Casualty evacuation by jeep.  Wellcome Image No: L0031962

WORLD WAR II: Casualty evacuation by jeep. Wellcome Image No: L0031962

Archives and Manuscripts have just acquired a short but vivid memoir of wartime service in the RAMC (MS.8766) by Dr Muriel “Molly” Newhouse, who is primarily remembered for her work in occupational health and in particular establishing the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma.

While there have already been a significant number of studies of medical women’s service in the Great War, a good deal less work has been done on their involvement in World War II. This may well be because instead of having to bang fruitlessly on the doors of the War Office demanding to serve their country, or setting up their own hospital units under the auspices of the Red Cross, medical women were taken as a routine occurence and a group who fell under the usual provisions for war service.

Newhouse records that in 1942 she was intending taking a post as a medical officer at an ordinance factory – ‘undoubtedly extremely worthy war work, but considerably dull’ – when she was called up for the RAMC, She thus spent 4 years in the Army without any great enthusiasm, but found herself later looking back ‘with amusement and affection’ on those years and thus wrote this memoir.

As a woman she was very much in a minority in the RAMC, but claims to have found ‘very little prejudice’ on account of her sex, and that ‘the Doc’s word, man or woman, was law’. There was apparently some hostility among officers of the ATS towards women medical officers, at least partly due to the fact the latter were entitled to wear a cross strap to their Sam Browne, a privilege not accorded to the ATS.

Her early postings were to various camps, depots and hospitals around the UK. Newhouse found her ambition to use this ‘ideal opportunity for medical research’ thwarted, and her life taken up with the horrors of ‘documentation’ – ‘for every ten minutes by the bedside fifty were spent on paper work’.

In 1944 she accompanied the Expeditionary Force to Normandy, where her first professional activity was to deliver the baby of a local French family who in the circumstances were unable to contact the usual midwife. Later on Newhouse, although a physician who normally dealt with cases of sickness rather than injury, found herself undertaking surgical duties at Bayeux. She later remarked that she had never got any further than seven miles from the coast during the whole time she was in France.

Following her return to the UK she was then posted, rather reluctantly, to India, eventually fetching up in Secunderabad in what she found to be rather startlingly luxurious conditions, given that it was wartime. She was subsequently posted to Singapore but the memoir concludes rather abruptly with an account of an RAMC mess meeting there.

Newhouse concedes that she could ‘pretend to no very heroic experiences, no great hardships’, but this memoir nonetheless provides a valuable insight into life in the medical services in wartime.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts