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A string of beads and a family mystery

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Isabella Stenhouse was one of the few women to serve as a doctor in the First World War. Her granddaughter Katrina Kirkwood reveals what it was like to trace her incredible story for her moving new book

Family tradition held that my grandmother, Isabella Lane (née Stenhouse), had served as a doctor during WW1 – but she never talked about it. Even on her 80th birthday, when she was presented with a huge tape-recorder and urged to record her memories, she still refused. The machine was untouched when she died 16 years later, leaving me her medical instruments and a mysterious string of beads – the gift, it was rumoured, of a grateful German prisoner of war. Sometimes I would look at the collection, wondering what story it could have told, but it was 40 years before I began to investigate.

That is probably a good thing. If I had tried to find out the truth in those pre-internet days, I would have discovered nothing and given up. Not only would Isabella’s story have remained untold but I would have missed out on a big adventure. As it is, the interconnected nature of archives and the generosity of the internet have had me dashing from Edinburgh to London, Guildford, Northern France, Malta, Leeds, Egypt ... I have followed Isabella into the buildings where she worked, discovered what she did and tried to learn how she felt. But the whole mission has raised questions.

I remember sitting in a café in France on the exact site of a hospital where my grandmother had tended wounded French soldiers in 1915. Straining for a sense of her presence, it struck me that she was not the one doing the haunting – it was me who was haunting her. I hesitated. Was I right to be dragging up a story that she had decided not to tell? Should I instead respect her silence and cease my probing? 

At that point, as far as I could see, Isabella’s reluctance to tell her tale resembled that of many other veterans – it protected her from traumatic memories. Since my investigations could no longer cause her distress and I had discovered many reasons why she could have been proud, I decided to carry on. 

Trawling libraries and archives, I searched out writings of the time, examined reports, studied carefully researched non-fiction from later decades – and drew the line at fiction. However enticing, however vivid, allowing fiction into my thinking seemed to invite slippage from truth and accuracy – except that the more I explored, the more I was forced to question what ‘truth and accuracy’ actually meant.

I remember visiting a former hospital in Malta. Upstairs, my imagination had been well and truly fired by the real possibility that Isabella had actually operated in that space, wielding the very implements that I had inherited. My research had allowed me to ‘see’ her, scrubbed-up, standing beside the operating table. I had ‘heard’ the flies and ‘smelled’ the anaesthetics. Now, downstairs, I was determined to stick rigidly to the facts for fear of drifting into inaccuracy – until I noticed a photograph on the wall that completely altered my thinking. 

The picture revealed that when Isabella worked here, the building had not been bare stone as it was now, it had been covered in dark paint. I was shaken – I had been convinced I was seeing what my grandmother had seen. But I had been wrong. OK, paint was trivial, but how many more important facts were lurking out there, waiting to alter the ‘truth’ the other facts had seemed to portray? 

More cautiously, I carried on investigating, Then, towards the end, when I had almost discovered as much as I needed, the commemorations began: huge ceremonies in honour of various different aspects of WW1 in every corner of the globe. I began to ask myself if I could do something to honour my grandmother’s amazing story, her contribution to that conflict. 

The plan became obvious and, in May 2015, I made my way onto an empty Egyptian beach. It felt scary, I was on my own and the authorities were unlikely to appreciate what I was about to do. Yet as I scraped hurriedly at the sand to carry out my task, I was keenly aware that my small act of homage required nothing like the courage my silent grandmother had needed every day of that horrendous war.

The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in World War I by Katrina Kirkwood is published by Loke Press. Both paperback and eBook are available on Amazon and from all good bookshops.

Website: www.katrinakirkwood.org

Blog: http://isabellaandthestringofbeads.blogspot.co.uk

Twitter: @kkstories

Read Family Tree’s review of The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads in the October issue of Family Tree, out now: http://www.family-tree.co.uk/store/back-issues/family-tree-magazine/family-tree-magazine-october-2016

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