Lady Doctors
Of the Malta Garrison
Mary Alice Blair
1880 –?

75 Mary Alice Blair

BSc (NZ 1902) MB BS (Lond 1907) MD (Lond 1910)

c.1880 – ?

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

64 GH Salonica
Aerial view No 64 British General Hospital Salonica (Cotter collection AMS Archives)

20 June 1907 Dr Mary Alice Blair received her medical education at the London School of Medicine for Women. In August 1904, she passed the General Intermediate Examination for Internal Students of the University of London. She qualified in 1907 and her name appeared in the Medical Directory for Scotland (Edinburgh) on 20 June 1907.

Dr Blair occupied the following posts: House Surgeon Belgrave Hospital for children, Resident Medical Officer Maternity Department New Hospital for Women London, House Surgeon and Senior Obstetrician Assistant Royal Free Hospital London, Honorary Anaesthetist Medical Mission Hospital Plaistow, Clinical Assistant Gynaecology Department Royal Free Hospital, Medical Officer Mrs Anstruther's Clinic, 53 Ethelred Street Lambeth.

Dr Blair was also Lecturer and Examiner in First Aid and Home Nursing with the London County Council, Medical Officer for the Women League of Service and Medical Advisor and Lecturer British Hospital for Mothers and Babies at Woolwich.

Nov 1915 Left for Serbia with a party of nurses to reinforce a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. When Serbia was forced to retreat, the unit worked for a few weeks in Salonica tending the refugees, where Dr Blair organised a hospital of 100 beds. She accompanied the Serbs to Ajaccio, Corsica when permission was granted to evacuate them to Corsica.

Aug 1916 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.

16 Sep 1916 Embarked for Malta from Corsica. Formed part of the Women's Medical Unit RAMC.

20 June 1917 Attached to No 65 General Hospital for duty with the British Salonica Force.

4 July 1917 Major E. W. Skinner (o/ic), 7 officers, 57 NCOs and men, 8 Lady Doctors, 1 Matron and 16 nurses left Malta on HMT ship Abbassieh. The transport was escorted by HMS Aster and HMS Azalea. HMS Aster struck a mine and sunk eleven miles off Malta with the loss of ten lives. HMS Azalea also struck a mine as she went to the aid of the stricken ship. The convoy returned to Malta and anchored in Marsaxlokk Harbour.

6 July 1917 HMT Ship Abbassieh sailed out of Marsaxlokk Harbour. She arrived at Suda Bay, Crete on 9 July and in Salonica, (Thessalonika) Harbour, on 11 July. No 65 General Hospital was erected at Hortiach which had been occupied by No 50 General Hospital. Seven medical women reported for duty at Hortiach on 30 July; Dr Blair and four nurses joined them on 2 August. The other medical women were:

No 65 General Hospital became operational on 30 July 1917, when 200 patients were transferred from No 43 General Hospital. No 292 Pte Carrell was the first recorded death. He died on 17 August from cerebral malaria; the second and third deaths were from Bacillary Dysentery (Shiga group) on 26 and 27 August 1917 respectively.

25 Oct 1917 Mentioned in Dispatches GHQ British Salonica Force (London Gazette 28 November 1917). The medical women attached to the RAMC who were mentioned in a dispatch dated 25 October 1917 from Lieutenant-General G. F. Milne, Commander-in-Chief, British Salonica Force for distinguished service were: Mary Alice Blair, Barbara Martin Cunningham, Elsie Jean Dalyell, Elizabeth Mary Edwards and Edith Blake Hollway.

1918 On duty at Salonica.

18 Jan 1919 – 16 Aug 1919 On duty with Eastern Command.

18 Aug 1919 Civilian Medical Practitioner Queen's Mary Army Auxiliary Corps at Isleworth Hospital.

4 Nov 1919 The work undertaken by medical women in the Mediterranean area during the Great War was discussed at a meeting of the London Association of the Lady Doctors' Federation, held at 11 Chandos Street London. Several lady doctors who had been attached to the RAMC gave an account of some of their experiences. Dr Blair described some of the features of life in a camp and the way in which infection was avoided in cases of dysentery. No cases occurred among the hospital staff during the winter months in the camp to which she was attached.

1923 The Medical Directory lists her address as 16, Vicarage Gardens, Campden Hill W 8, London.