Lady Doctors
Of the Malta Garrison
Mary Thorne
1861 –1951

15 Mary Thorne

OBE MD (Hnrs) ( Brux 1895) LSA (1895) FRCS (Irel 1902)

13 Jan 1861 [China] – 13 Oct 1951 [London]

In May 1916, Dr Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, approached all the women on the Medical Register asking them to say if they would be willing to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps. From the replies received, 48 lady doctors were enrolled. The first 22 medical women embarked for Malta on 2 August 1916; another 16 lady doctors embarked on the Hospital Ship (H.S.) Gloucester Castle on 12 August 1916.

The Director General Army Medical Services, Sir Alfred Keogh, was responsible for employing medical women and for dealing with illnesses among them. Women doctors, also referred to as lady doctors, were classed as civilian surgeons attached to the RAMC. Women serving as full time doctors in the Army and doing precisely the same work as their male colleagues had neither military rank nor status, but received the same pay, rations, travelling allowances and gratuity as temporary commissioned male officers of the Royal Army Medical Corps. A uniform was not introduced until after April 1918. This was similar in appearance to that worn by the Queen Mary's Auxiliary Army Corps (QMAAC) but with an RAMC badge on both lapels.

In October 1916, on hearing from the War Office that fifty more medical women were needed for service with the RAMC in English hospitals, Aldrich-Blake again negotiated with all the women who had qualified in the preceding ten years, and secured the requisite number in a very short time. On 20 October 1916, eleven medical women embarked on H.S. Britannic for Malta.

The casualties from operations in Gallipoli (25 April 1915 – 9 January 1916), and Salonica (October 1915 – 30 September 1918), were initially treated in Malta and Egypt, but in 1917, submarine attacks on hospital ships made it unsafe to evacuate from Salonica and five General Hospitals, Nos 61, 62, 63, 64 and 65, mobilized in Malta for service in Salonica to which the medical women were attached.

Between August 1916 and July 1917, eighty two lady doctors served in war hospitals in Malta. They worked alongside their RAMC colleagues and carried out all but administrative duties. Their assistance was very highly appreciated. Their work was recognized in the King's Birthday Honours list of June 1918 when Dr Barbara Martin Cunningham MB ChB, Military Hospital Mtarfa, Mrs Katharine Rosebery Drinkwater MB BS, in charge of Military Families Staff and Department Malta and Miss May Thorne MD, in charge of Sisters' Hospital and Staff Department Malta, were awarded the Order of the British Empire for services rendered during the war.

Service Record

Dr Mary (May) Thorne was born in China in 1861. She was the second child of Joseph and Isobel Thorne. Her brother was Dr Atwood Thorne, surgeon to the London Throat Hospital.2 Her mother was one of the famous pioneers who fought the early battles for the recognition of women in medicine and who helped to found the London School of Medicine for Women, becoming its first secretary in 1874. She died in October 1910.1 It was to help her mother in this work that May Thorne decided to qualify as a doctor. With characteristic thoroughness she felt that she would be best able to understand the problems of a medical student if she had been one herself. Although already over 30 years, she enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women and qualified as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) in 1895. However, she had to travel to Brussels for her MD and then to Dublin for her FRCS, as the Royal Colleges of England had not yet opened their doors to women.

Dr Mary (May) Thorne was an Honorary Physician to the Dispensary for Women, St Marylebone General Dispensary, an Anaesthetist, Senior Clinical Assistant, and Senior House Surgeon to the New Hospital for Women London, (later the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital). In 1908, she followed her mother as honorary secretary of the London School of Medicine for Women.

From 1898 to the outbreak of the Great War, Dr Mary M. Thorne was in practice at 10 Nottingham Place, London, and later in Harley Street. The Medical Directory of 1918 lists her address as No 148, Harley Street W.1. One of her patients was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), whom she looked after during the closing years of that remarkable life.3

Dr Mary (May) Thorne was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, a Member of the British Medial Association, an examiner to the Central Midwifery Board, and a lecturer on vaccination at the London School of Medicine for Women. She was also President of the Association of Registered Medical Women, which originated in 1879. In 1917, local associations joined together to form the Medical Women's Federation (MWF). Its aim was to represent the interests of women as doctors (especially those serving in the Armed Forces) and patients. The MWF was particularly concerned with the career opportunities and medical education of women. It conducted surveys and research into topics such as the menopause, abortion, and family planning, held lectures and conferences, and formed committees to investigate medical issues that specifically affected women.

Dr Mary M. Thorne wrote:

2 June 1904 Byrne vs Thorne: In June 1904, Mr Justice Bruce ruled on a case brought by Miss Byrne, a housekeeper, to recover damages from Miss Mary Thorne (MD Brux) FRCS (Irel), for alleged negligence in leaving a sponge inside a wound after an abdominal operation in April 1903. The accepted practice was for a competent nurse to count all swabs and sponges. The jury found the surgeon not to be negligent, but awarded the plaintiff £25 in damages for pain and suffering.6

Although the expenses of Miss Thorne's defence were defrayed by the Medical Defence Union, she was herself held responsible for the damages awarded against her, and also for the plaintiff's costs, which together amounted to about £250. On 14 June 1904, the Thorne Defence Fund7 was set up by Drs Walter S. A. Griffith, Walter Tate and Douglas Drew to assist Miss Thorne in meeting this expense and as a means of showing the practical sympathy of the medical profession with her. Among the subscribers were Mrs E. Garrett Anderson and Sir Victor Horsley. Miss Thorne's Defence Fund soon became fully subscribed and was discontinued on 2 July 1904.

1908 Honorary Secretary of the London School of Medicine for Women. Was one of 538 medical women of the United Kingdom declaring themselves in favour of the principle of Women's Suffrage. On 10 December 1908, she added her name to a letter to the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith MP, urging for the parliamentary franchise to be extended to duly qualified women.

8 Oct 1909 Presented a lecture to the Fifth Annual public meeting of the Association of Women Pharmacists, held in the lecture theatre of the Pharmaceutical Society at 17, Bloomsbury Square, London on The Power of Little Things.8

Dec 1909 Contributed £5 to Dr Adams' Defence Fund in the case of libel against Mr Ernest Pomeroy and Vanity Fair. Dr Adams had won her case, but was faced with defraying her own expenses of about £100, as she had not been awarded damages. The article which had formed the basis of the libel action, had been published in Vanity Fair on 7 October 1908, and was typical of the attacks previously made by Mr Pomeroy against the medical profession, particularly in connection with the subject of vaccination. The article contained scandalous and absolutely untrue statements regarding the whole medical profession, and suggested an imputation against Dr Adams personally which, if true, would have necessitated her exclusion from the profession on the ground of infamous conduct.9

Oct 1910 In October 1910, Dr Mary Thorne and Dr Prudence Elizabeth Gaffikin lectured in conjunction with the caravan of the Women's National Health Association (WNHA). The Women's National Health Association (WNHA) was founded in 1907. It carried health education programmes the length and breadth of Ireland. One of its many initiatives was a horse drawn caravan that toured parish halls with displays and literature educating the public about disease prevention. In 1910, Muriel, Viscountess Helnsley, christened the caravan in pure milk, giving it the name of Florence Nightingale.10

6 Feb 1912 At a meeting of the Association of Registered Medical Women, Dr Mary M. Thorne presented the case of a woman, who had been increasingly jaundiced since an attack of vomiting six months previously.4

18 Feb 1913 Presented a lecture to the Nottingham Medico-Chirurgical Society on Some remediable defects in children of school age.

July 1916 Dr Mary May Thorne was in the first group of women doctors to join the RAMC. She was contracted to work for 12 months as a Civilian Surgeon attached to the RAMC. Her salary was 24 shillings a day, including allowances, but excluding duty transport. A gratuity of £60 was awarded at the end of the contract, provided employment had not been terminated for misconduct. Most of the medical women were invited to renew their contracts at the expiry of their first year's work.

2 Aug 1916 Embarked for Malta as part of the Women's Medical Unit RAMC. The doctors in the party varied from the newly qualified to her consultant self, and it was largely owing to her tact and ability that they were able to co-operate in their work.

On 8 April 1921, Dr Helen M. Greene in her account of Medical Women with the RAMC in Malta and Egypt praised May Thorne for her work of caring for the medical women. Their work was varied, mainly medical, some surgical, some pathological. Dr Edith Mary Martin organised a mental hospital and Dr Mary May Thorne did some admirable work among the nurses and military families. No words can say what medical women, as a whole, owe to Dr May Thorne. She worked for the good of her patients, her fellow-doctors, and women in general from morning to the next morning very often. And she never faltered. Dr Thorne was awarded an OBE for her surgical work in Malta.

2 Oct 1916 Sent a telegram of congratulations on the occasion of the opening of the extension of the school to the London School of Medicine (LSMW) for Women, on behalf of the other 29 former students working with the RAMC at Malta. (In 1900, new premises for the LSMW were built on the original site, which were extended in 1916, following the raising of £30,000 through an appeal issued on 10 December 1914).5

30 Jan 1917 Attended the funeral of Dr Isobel Addey Tate.

8 July 1918 – 12 July 1919 On duty with London District. After the war she did not return to private practice but bent all her energies to the furtherance of the Royal Free Hospital and its medical school and of medical women in general.

The Origins of the London School of Medicine for Women: On 3 October 1864, the Female Medical Society was inaugurated at a meeting in the Hanover Square rooms. The Marquis Townshend was the first president, followed later by the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the list of some forty-three patrons, vice presidents, and members of committee were: The Duke and Duchess of Argyll, Archbishop Manning, Baroness de Rothschild, Mrs Gladstone, Lord Houghton, Professor F. W. Newman, Drs Aldis, Buchanan, Mackenzie, Hardwicke, Elliott, and others, eminent in almost every branch of public life. Dr. James Edmunds was the honorary secretary. He helped ladies medically disposed with his sympathy and practical labour, but was not altogether favourable to carrying the medical education of women to the point of enabling them to become registered.

The objects of the Female Medical Society were:

The lecturers were Doctors James Edmunds, E. W. Murphy, D. H. Dyte, C. H. Drysdale, J. A. R. Newlands, John Locking, and George Ross. The course on obstetrics alone comprised eighty lectures of one hour each; and each student was required to attend personally twenty-five deliveries under qualified superintendence at a lying in hospital or maternity charity. Other courses comprised anatomy and physiology, chemistry, materia medica, diseases of women, diseases of infants, and general medical science. The earlier lectures were given at 4, Fitzroy Square; the later ones at 164, Great Portland Street.

One of the later prospectuses stated, This society has carried on for five years the Ladies' Medical College. Eighty-two ladies have already availed themselves of its advantages, and many of these ladies are settled in practice, and succeeding admirably. The society came to an end in 1869, partly from want of funds and partly because the ladies themselves, being dissatisfied with its scope, broke off. Dr Mary Thorne said that some of them had spent five years unsuccessfully trying other fields, such as Edinburgh.11

In August 1874, the London School of Medicine for Women, which gave women students a full curriculum and opportunity to register, was founded through the efforts of Mrs. Isobel Thorne, Mrs Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) and Miss Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912). Mrs. Thorne was first attracted towards medicine by her experience in the East, where she spent several of the early years of her married life. She saw for herself the need that existed among women in India and China of the services of trained medical women. On her return to England she endeavoured, with the co-operation of her husband, to obtain a medical qualification, and actually pursued a course of study at Edinburgh; but at that time, towards the end of the 1860's, it was very difficult for women to obtain a medical qualification. Mrs Thorne at length determined to devote her energies in another but allied direction. Together with some of her former fellow students, she took steps which eventually led to the starting of a School of Medicine for women in London. Mrs Thorne served as the honorary secretary of the School of Medicine for over thirty years.

Classes opened on 12 October, 1874 with fourteen students. Of some 1,100 women on the Medical Register for 1916, 600 had received their training at the school. The school, which formed part of the University of London, gave a complete course of medical instruction, including the clinical course, which was pursued at the Royal Free Hospital and at St Mary's Hospital Paddington. On 7 December 1909, the General Medical Council, added the London School of Medicine for Women and the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women to the list of recognized medical schools, and the Royal Free Hospital was also be added to the list of recognized hospitals.

3 Oct 1921 Seventy students joined the Winter Session of the medical course of the London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women. The students were welcomed by Dr Louisa Aldrich Blake, Dean of the School, who in her address told them that some might feel a little anxious about their prospects in the career which they had chosen. As to the work of women in general, the too prevalent idea seemed to be that if there was a great deal that wanted doing, women could come and do it, but if the work was less in amount, or less pressing, then women should retire to their domestic occupations. The workers of the world might roughly be divided into those who produced, and those who served. In medicine they were among those who served, and surely it was for the public alone to say by whom they would be served. Dr Mary Thorne, honorary secretary, spoke of the urgent financial needs of the Royal Free Hospital, which fifty years ago first opened its doors to women students.12

1948 Retired from the Board of Management of the Royal Free Hospital, which she had served for forty years, only leaving in 1948 when the National Health Service began. Dr Mary May Thorne never tired in her watchful vigilance over the interests of the students, past and present. She founded the Patients and Friends League, and was for a long time the honorary secretary of the hospital, being largely responsible for the appeal department. She visited the hospital daily, always traveling by bus or on foot whatever the weather. She worked untiringly and raised thousands of pounds for the hospital, which after her retirement named one of its new wards in her honour.

13 Oct 1951 Dr Mary May Thorne fractured her femur when nearly 90. She died quietly in her sleep at No 17, York Street Chambers, London, in her 91st year of her life. She was a character unforgettable in her clear-sighted judgment of people and affairs, her singleness of purpose, her sense of humour and of proportion.