Dr Isabella Stenhouse’s Sheroic Journey

Isabella Stenhouse served as a doctor during the First World War, but is that enough to make her a Shero? In fact, what makes any ordinary girl into a Shero? Joseph Campbell analysed hero stories from around the world. He found that they followed a remarkably constant pattern that he called  The Hero’s Journey. If Isabella’s journey matched Campbell’s model, would she qualify as a Shero? isabellas-shero-journey

For example, Campbell found that every hero’s journey begins with a Call to Adventure. Did Isabella experience something like that, something that brushed against her life and sparked new, unsettling thoughts? It seems likely because, when she was 16, she bucked convention, took the entrance exams for medical school and immediately encountered the opposition which all budding heroes face. Isabella’s Threshold Guardians were her parents. Like many Edwardians, they felt it was inappropriate for young ladies to work as doctors and it took Isabella four whole years to persuade them to let her study.

Isabella Stenhouse (tallest) as a girl with her sisters
Isabella Stenhouse (tallest) as a girl with her sisters

Once on the road, every hero has to overcome numerous Challenges and Temptations. Which is what Isabella had to do when she crossed the threshold of the women’s medical school in Edinburgh. The courses were hard, the male tutors often rude and patronising, and a career as a woman in medicine looked insecure and lonely. But heroes keep going. So did Isabella. In 1913, she graduated – just in time for her heroic Abyss, the 1914-18 war.

At the start of that war, Isabella and her fellow women doctors, like many heroes, found themselves rejected. The Army and the British Red Cross believed that they would not be up to the job and felt strongly that women should not treat soldiers. Determined to fulfill their callings, these professional women were forced to seek alternative ways of helping their country. In March 1915, Isabella began working in a French hospital, treating the mutilated soldiers of Britain’s ally.

Later in the year, the hospital closed but, by then, so many male doctors had gone to the Front that the University of Edinburgh was in dire need of tutors. Giving up its policy of keeping male and female medical students separate, it employed Isabella to teach the very first mixed anatomy class – a small victory for Shero-dom.

A second victory followed, this time against the Army. Vast numbers of newly wounded men were flooding in from the battlefields, but many of those injured in previous years still required treatment. Desperate for more doctors, the Army decided to risk employing a few women – Isabella was one of the first to sign up. It was a victory, but it did not signal the end of the women doctors’ war against the Army. Their conditions of work proved so intolerable that, by 1918, a fully-fledged campaign for justice was being mounted on their behalf.

Isabella Stenhouse in Malta serving with the army
Isabella Stenhouse in Malta serving with the army

Then, with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the journey through the Abyss came to an end. Not that Isabella or anybody else could exactly follow the traditional hero’s route back to the Known, for the Known had gone. But Isabella did make her own, difficult, Return.

Male prejudice prevented her from continuing the surgery in which she had specialised during the war, and she made it harder for herself by committing the ‘crime’ of getting married – most employers believed that married women should stay at home, look after their families and leave the jobs for spinsters. But Isabella, being Isabella, found a way to carry on. Thirty years before Dr Turner of Call the Midwife fame took over, she ran mother and baby clinics in London’s Poplar.

So – does Dr Isabella Stenhouse qualify as a Shero? She was born too late to be one of the original, pioneering medical Sheroes, but she was definitely one of those Sheroic foot-soldiers who fought hard to consolidate the gains made by the pioneers. And that, surely, is just as Sheroic.

Written for Sheroes of History by Katrina Kirkwood, digital and storytelling artist

Find out more…

For full details of Dr Isabella Stenhouse’s sheroic journey and how Katrina traced it, check out her book The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1isabella_front_cover_final

Read a free sample available here.

Find out about the historical background to Isabella’s adventures here and in this article.

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