Alexander Murray Drennan – pioneer of Eusol


Alexander Murray Drennan – or Murray to his friends – was born in Glasgow on 4th January 1884, and grew up in Helensburgh before coming to Edinburgh in 1901 to study medicine. Murray was a keen letter writer, and his letters to his sweetheart ‘Nan’ (Marion Galbraith, who would later become his wife) give an insight into the life of a young aspiring medical student:

Our first class begins at 8am so we have to be up betimes in the morning. From 8 to 10 I have anatomy and then at 11 I go over to the Infirmary; nominally we leave there at 1pm but on Operation days, twice a week at least, it is often 3 before I get away as I have the pleasure of being the instrument clerk and as such have to see after the instruments.

– GD9/45

It wasn’t all hard work, though. Murray’s letters to Nan and his family recount evenings spent at enjoying Edinburgh’s cultural offerings (“I went to see Faust on Monday night. It is rather a ‘creepy’ sort of opera but the music is very fine”); attending dinners (“at night there was a complimentary dinner given to Professor Beattie in the Caledonian Hotel … Beattie was very popular when he was here and no wonder for he was an exceptionally nice man and knew his work thoroughly”) and afternoons spent playing tennis and golf with fellow students as well as professors (“Professor Schӓfer had the goodness to ask me down to North Berwick to golf with him … a most enjoyable day’s golf in the most delightful weather. We went back to the house and had tea and then I had just time to get the 6.43 train back”).

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Residents, Summer 1907. Drennan is seated front row, far right.

After graduating MB ChB in 1906, Murray took up a practical apprenticeship as a Resident of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In between visiting patients and supervising the various nurses, clerks, dressers and medical students who attended the wards, the Residents made time to enjoy themselves (you can find out more about their antics over on the LHSA blog). In one letter to Nan, Murray related a night out for the ‘Mess’:

RIE Residents on a bus, ready for an outing.

Friday … evening at 9pm, the Mess having chartered a visitor bus (& driver) set out for Peebles. It created quite a sensation when at the appointed time one of these large buses labelled “Jeffery’s Lager” rolled up to the door & we all embarked. The inside was converted into smoking room, saloon bar, while the upper deck was occupied by the sightseers. It was very funny going out Dalkeith Rd, several people tried to get on board thinking it was a public conveyance, needless to say their attempts to mount our machine were not encouraged by word or deed. The run out was delightful as it was a clear warm evening & the road lies through pretty country. We got to Peebles shortly after 11pm & found supper all ready for us at the ‘Cross Keys’ inn. As usual the Mess meeting was constituted & we did full justice to the repast, reembarking again about 12.40am.”

– GD9/46

Following his residency Murray stayed close to home, working in the by-now familiar Pathology Department of the University of Edinburgh. When war broke out in 1914, he signed up as an official Pathologist with the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C), and in 1915 he had to postpone an imminent appointment as the first full-time Professor of Pathology at the University of Otago in New Zealand and instead make his way to the R.A.M.C. Depot in Aldershot. In a letter home dated October 1915, he describes some of the men he will serving with and the set-up of their team:

The staff seem all very decent men, one or two are well over forty & must have been in practice. There are several Edinburgh graduates amongst them … on the whole I think we should work well together … There are two or three surgical specialists, one medical specialist, several radiologists, several anaesthetists and one bacteriologist … there is a little man Brown who has done a little in that way & I shall try & get him on to help, but he does not profess much technical knowledge!


In early November 1915 Murray’s unit was deployed to Mudros, on the island of Greece. He would later describe how this previously “bare, stony island” was overtaken by military personnel:

As the occupation spread the whole of the harbour side of the island was dotted with tents from Mudros East to Condia on the west. It was a shifting population, today 10000, next week perhaps 60000. The only permanent fixtures, so to speak, being the various H.Q.s, the Base depots and the Hospitals.

To the north a little outside Mudros East were several stationary hospitals situated on a sun-baked flat, and there they bore the burden of the day; blinded with dust and flies and crowded up with cases of dysentery, the staff often sick, they cheerily toiled along. In the neighbourhood also were numerous camps of combatant units; and one bright spot, facetiously known as the “dogs’ home”, where extra medical officers were kept on the chain and supplied as required to the Peninsula or to units on the island.

– GD9/38

Murray’s letters home to Nan and their children from this time paint rather a relaxed picture of life in war time. Reading them, one is left with the impression that he only wanted to recount activities that his wife would be familiar with, rather than the full realities of a life in an overseas field hospital. One letter, for example, describes how they spend their evenings: “After dinner we had our usual games at whist. It is quite an institution and we have played every evening after dinner, always Richards and Thuilliers against the Colonel and me, and so far the games have been very even”. In another letter, Murray talks of attending a garden party: “it was just quiet tea in the Fergusons’ little garden, a shady spot with palms, & bougainvillea, & such things growing about. … We had tea & chatted & then left in small batches”.

Alexander Murray Drennan in Cairo, 1915

By 1915 some of Murray correspondents had already been stationed abroad for some time, and his incoming letters give insights into some very different military experiences. Murray’s younger brother James Stewart Drennan (who had joined the Royal Horse and Field Artillery in 1912) described life in Salonika and a close encounter with a German zeppelin:

It has been beastly hot here again the last few days and we have now chucked working in the middle of the day, instead we lie on our beds in a more or less nude condition and curse the flies, luckily it is still nice and cool at night.

Salonica [sic] had another visit from a Zepp. three or four days ago, just before daylight. All the guns and searchlights in the place got on to it at once and it was brought down before it had a chance of dropping any bombs. It came down in the marshes at the mouth of the Vardar River and the men were captured, so were felt rather bucked at having bagged a Zepp in this corner of the world.

– GD9/10

A letter from Tom Graham Brown, physiologist and mountaineer, gives an insight into the life of medical personnel at home:

Write me a decent letter and tell me all your news. I wish I was out there with you. I am at present fixed in this hospital which is one for shock cases – mostly men who are pretty badly shaken or bad mentally after bombardments. Very many of them get well – tho’ we get a good many early G.P.I’s before they are diagnosed.

I wish all the same that I could get out. It isn’t any catch being in this country. However I must trust to luck.

– GD9/4

Yet another perspective was provided by Dr John Fraser (later Prof. Sir John Fraser, Principal of University of Edinburgh). Dr Fraser was stationed in Northern France, and his letters describe the long, difficult days the staff there endured:

Lately we have been deluged with work: you can probably imagine what Monday was like. I was in the theatre from 10am to 12 midnight, and in that time there were 6 craniotomies: an amputation and 2 gas gangrene: in addition to others. One doesn’t feel much inclined for reading or writing after such days.

– GD9/100

There were benefits to working in such tough conditions, however. War often brings about significant advances in technology and medicine: as well as the greater incentive to improve the health of fighting forces, the need to take risks and experiment can also increase.

Many of the battles of WW1 took place on muddy farmland, and it could sometimes be days before a soldier was transported to a clearing hospital for comprehensive treatment. This meant the risk of already-traumatic wounds becoming infected was high, with gangrene claiming many lives.

For some time prior to his deployment Murray had been working with colleagues in the Pathology Department at the University of Edinburgh “to find an antiseptic which could be applied as a first dressing in the field to prevent sepsis”[1], and in 1915 they published a paper in the British Medical Journal on their experiments with ‘Eusol’, or Edinburgh University Solution of Lime. This was a combination of bleaching powder and boric acid, and early experiments both in the wards and in the field showed great success at reducing infection and speeding up healing.

In gathering accounts of these experiments, Murray relied on other colleagues who were using the Eusol treatment. This letter from Dr Fraser sets out the dilemma faced by many front-line surgeons, and his experience using Eusol:

Since I last wrote you I have had a run of gas gangrene cases, all of them I have treated with Eusol and in each case I have been thoroughly satisfied with the result. With one case I was exceedingly impressed. Lt. Col. —- had been infected 5 days before admission to the Hospital – on admission there was most gangrene to the lower of the knee: from this knee to the groin there was the gas infection of the tissues which precedes the tissue necrosis. One was faced with three possibilities – 1. Leaving him alone to die 2. Doing a flapless amputation at the hip joint: a mutilating operation from which few recover 3. Amputation through the centre of the thigh, in other words, through the centre of the gas infected area, and risking it.

I chose the last: I did the operation under Special Anaesthesia and as I was doing the operation I remarked that it ought to satisfy the criteria as regards the use of Eusol. I amputated through the thigh and not only so but I made flaps and partly closed the wound, a thing one had never dared to attempt previously… The result was a complete success: no trace of gangrene appeared subsequently.


A further hurdle to be overcome in wartime was the difficulty in communicating such advances. Recognising the delays to the mail that could occur, Murray devised a system for himself and Nan:

I sent off my last to you on Sunday afternoon, & I labelled it no.1 as I explained so that you would know by the number if a letter was missing, of course I have sent several to you before I began the numbering. This is a recapitulation in case you didn’t get my last letter.


Murray also kept a small diary in which he recorded letters sent and received – an absolute dream for archivists and researchers!

There are roughly 6 archive boxes of letters like this – thankfully Drennan had a system by which to organise them!

No such system was in place for the medical men, however, and correspondence over a number of weeks between Murray, J. Lorrain Smith and Fraser details the somewhat arduous process of getting an article published.

I am sorry to have been so lazy in getting this note away, but during the last week the pace of work has increased and although [things are quieter] at present, if I do not get these away now it may be a long while before I have another opportunity.

– Fraser to Drennan, 17 Sep 1915

For the past fortnight I have been cut off from all correspondence and your letter and the manuscript were awaiting me here on my return. I have handed the manuscript to the Colonel and he has approved of it: he forwards it to the DMS [Director of Medical Services] and who if he approves will forward to the War Office: the WO will notify the BMJ or Dr Fletcher to proceed with the publication. The ways of the army are wonderful but there they are!

– Fraser to Drennan, 5 Dec 1915

By 1916 Eusol was an established means for treating septic wounds, and even today[1] hypochlorus acid forms a backbone to attempts to accelerate wound healing.

After being discharged from service in 1916, Murray was finally able to take up his place in New Zealand, with his wife and children joining him shortly after. They remained there until 1929 when Professor Drennan took up the Chair of Pathology at Queen’s University in Belfast, and in 1932 he returned to his alma mater to take up the Chair at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained until his retirement in 1954. Professor Drennan died in 1984, a few weeks after his 100th birthday.

Alexander Murray Drennan and family on a picnic in Dunedin, New Zealand.



[1] 2 Smith JL, Drennan AM, Rettie T, Campbell W. Experimental observations on the antiseptic action of hypochlorous acid and its application to wound treatment. BMJ 1915;ii: 129-36.

“Dear Mr President…” Robert Wallace’s letters to Woodrow Wilson, 1914-1917

Professor Robert Wallace, from the glass slide collection partially amassed by him (Coll-1434/3200)

Professor Robert Wallace, from the glass slide collection partially amassed by him (Coll-1434/3200)

Robert Wallace (1853-1939) is not a widely-known name today, although in his time he was an important agriculturalist who travelled the world. He was Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of Edinburgh between 1885 and 1922, and established the Edinburgh Incorporated School of Agriculture. Edinburgh University Library Special Collections holds some material relating to Wallace, namely, a collection of glass slides partly amassed by him and some written material. Among these papers is a collection of Wallace’s copies of a number of letters sent to President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War.

'Letters to President Woodrow Wilson...' (Gen.867F)

‘Letters to President Woodrow Wilson…’ (Gen.867F)

Over the course of 27 letters dating between 30 August 1914 and 3 April 1917, Wallace addresses the President on the perceived dangers to allied prisoners of war under the system of “frightfulness” (a term which was used to describe an assumed military policy of the German Army towards civilians in World War I, particularly during their invasion of Belgium in 1914). Wallace also expresses concern about the dangers of starvation to the Belgian people, and about what course of action America, who was then neutral, ought to take. In his first letter, Wallace sets out his aims:

My object is to inform you of the root-causes of the present war and of the nature of the German autocracy with which the civilised world is confronted, for it is to my mind certain that America is destined to play an important part in that compact among the leading nations which must make a gigantic war in the future an impossibility.

Wallace enclosed a number of press cuttings and pamplets, such as Morals and German Policy by Arthur Conan Doyle and an article on the Neutrality of the United States in relation to the British and German Empires by Joseph Shield Nicolson, then Professor of Political Economy at the University of Edinburgh.

These letters were by no means Wallace’s first brush with American political figures. He had visited the United States on a number of occasions as part of his work, and on a visit in 1898 he met James Wilson, Minister of Agriculture at Washington (who had emigrated from Scotland aged 18 and, it was discovered,  happened to be related to Wallace). Wilson introduced him to President McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, who spoke warmly to Wallace of Britain’s support of America during the Cuban War. Wallace clearly hoped that his letters to the 28th President would encourage a return of this favour.

However, although the White House confirmed that his letters had been received, it appears that Wallace was never granted a response from the President himself. Undeterred, he continued to collect and send press cuttings and articles, and as the war progressed his tone became more urgent. In a letter dated 5 February 1917, Wallace expressed his “profound disappointment and my public, as well as private, regret” at the President’s address to Congress on 3 February that his country was “sincere friends of the German people and earnestly desire to remain at peace with the Government which speaks for them.” This statement was made following Germany’s proposal to form a military alliance with Mexico in the event of the US entering the war (the ‘Zimmerman telegram’), and many were critical of Wilson’s minimal reaction. After the sinking of several American ships, however, Wilson called a cabinet meeting on 20 March, in which America’s entry into the war received a unanimous vote.

Wallace himself did not necessarily believe that entering the war was the desired solution. In his final letter to the President (which he titled his “final supreme effort”) dated 3 April 1917, Wallace urged Wilson to commission all German and Austrian ships in USA harbours to carry food to Belgium, and suggested that America should unite with the Chinese Republic as a deterrent to Germany.

'President Wilson Leads Parade' - a glass slide from the collection partially amassed by Wallace (Coll-1434/3261)

‘President Wilson Leads Parade’ – a glass slide from the collection partially amassed by Wallace (Coll-1434/3261)

Yet on the following day, a declaration of war by the United States against Germany passed Congress by strong bipartisan majorities.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson spent six months in Paris at the Peace Conference, where he was a staunch advocate of the creation of a League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. Wallace published his letters to Woodrow Wilson in book form in 1931.



Although Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to Wallace’s letters remain unknown, they provide a fascinating insight into the subject of America’s entry in the First World War, as well as an unusual insight into Wallace’s personality against a backdrop of international conflict.

Clare Button
Project Archivist



Over the line – a German medic’s war


In this month’s edition, Louise, Archivist in Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA), finds a different view of the First World War….

Ernst Levin (1887 – 1975) was a German-born neurologist who first came to Edinburgh in 1933 to work with neurosurgeon Norman Dott in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Since Levin was Jewish, the Nazi rise to power meant that he could no longer work in his then-home of Munich, where he had just received a Chair in neurology at the city’s University.

ernstErnst Levin (1887 – 1975)

We knew about Levin’s medical work in hospitals across the city and for the German consulate in Scotland through his medical papers, donated to LHSA in the 1970s. However, although we had a record of Ernst’s career, we knew little of his time in Germany or his experiences as an émigré, leaving a lot of blanks when interested researchers asked to know more about the man behind the archive.

In 2015, I was given the opportunity to acquire Levin’s personal papers for LHSA – letters, photographs and mementos that added to the clinical profile we already held. This was a first for us in combining private and career records to give a more complete picture of a prominent personality in Edinburgh’s medical life.

Through this new collection, I learnt that Levin served during the First World War and later, along with his wife Anicuta Belau, had a wide circle of friends in the artistic movements of the decadent Weimar Republic. With the Nazi rise to power, Levin came to Edinburgh, subsequently joined by Anicuta and their daughter, Anna. Levin (like many other European exiles) was interred (in the Isle of Man) during the Second World War – but still returned to live the rest of his life in Edinburgh.

One of the first things that I noticed about our new donation was a group of photographs and mementos from the First World War, when Levin served as Assistant Surgeon of the Reserve of the Bavarian Infantry Regiment. These images from the German lines were extremely striking, and gave an immediate view of the trenches that are rare from British troops. Although smaller cameras were popularising photography as a hobby by the time of the First World War, the British Army had imposed restrictions on private camera use by 1916. In contrast, personal photography was tolerated more on the German side.  It appears that Levin was a keen photographer, and noted chemicals used in the development process on his photograph envelopes. There are a large number of First World War images in the collection, from photographs of the German lines:


… to soldiers relaxed and enjoying themselves:


As a first for us, LHSA has also acquired images of German field hospitals thanks to Levin’s collecting:


What really sticks out about Ernst’s First World War archive is the mixture of battlefield images and snatched moments of life for civilians under occupation – something that is reflected in his photography:


… but also by handmade postcards which were intermingled with his war memorabilia:


The postcards are signed, but we cannot be sure whether they were created under a pseudonym by Ernst himself or by an acquaintance. The word ‘Postkaart’ on their reverse may imply that they were drawn in Holland or Belgium, though:


We can guess where Ernst may have been stationed on account of the paper memorabilia he collected, from postcard books of places like Bruges and Tournai to maps of the front-lines:


As a medic, Levin far from escaped the dangers of the Front. In fact, he won a Military Medical Medal for his heroism in the Battle of the Somme. In August 1916, Levin was ordered to set up a dressing station in Cléry. Not only did he achieve this in an exposed area without artillery protection, but also showed bravery under fire when the station was shelled. The following is taken from Bavaria’s Golden Roll of Honour, compiled from the Bavarian War Archive:

“Whilst everyone took what shelter they could from the artillery fire, Dr Levin, hearing a wounded man cry out, immediately went to the aid of the casualty despite the firing and at the risk of his life. He bandaged the wounds and carried the man to the dug-out. Throughout the Battle of the Somme, Dr Levin distinguished himself by his spirit of sacrifice, his calmness and level-headed-ness and his strong sense of duty.”


Ernst Levin in uniform

It is lucky that a good proportion of this war archive is largely visual – most of Levin’s personal collection is written in German. There are, for example, bundles of letters like this one, sent home to Munich through the German military mail system, Feldpost:


And it is this language barrier that, at the moment, we are looking for ways to overcome, from involving academics to better understand the content of Levin’s archive to tracing the content of the collection through methods that do not involve deciphering the older-style German script in which manyof the letters are written. However, the visual clues I can decipher have already given me a privileged view behind the German lines.


All images from LHSA accession, Acc15/001.

Roll of the Fallen

We are pleased to announce that the University’s Roll of the Fallen for the First World War is now searchable online.

Roll of Honour homepage

Roll of Honour homepage

Principal James Alfred Ewing

Principal James Alfred Ewing

The Roll of Honour was originally published in 1921, edited by Maj. John E. Mackenzie. In his Introduction, the then Principal and Vice Chancellor, James Alfred Ewing stated that this was to “meet a strong and general desire that the names should be recorded of those members of the University of Edinburgh who took part in the war, as well as those whose service cost them their lives.”

The volume has two principal sections. The first of these is the Roll of the Fallen, containing 944 names, with accompanying photographs for most entries. Thereafter follows the Roll of War Service, with details of around 700 individuals, not included in the previous section, who saw war service. There are also smaller lists for those mentioned in Dispatches and recipients of medals, decorations etc.

At the moment, time has only allowed us to get the Roll of the Fallen into our online database. The entire volume content is however available online at

For most of the individuals concerned, we will have the records of their studies. The list also includes members of staff and they too are likely to occur elsewhere in our archives.


MacDiarmid in ‘Thistleonica’: A Poem from a Forgotten Front

MacDiarmid (standing left) with fellow officers, Salonika, 3 December 1916 (Gen. 2236/3/11)

MacDiarmid (left) with fellow officers (Gen. 2236/3/11)

The Papers of Andrew Graham Grieve (Gen. 2236) include a poem from a forgotten front of the First World War written by his older brother Christopher Murray Grieve, later to achieve fame as Hugh MacDiarmid.

Grieve/MacDiarmid had initially opposed the war as a capitalist adventure running counter to the interests of the working classes. The death of school-friend John Bogue Nisbet at the Battle of Loos caused a change of heart, however, and he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps in July 1915. Following training in England, he was posted as ‘Sergeant-Caterer of the Officer’s Mess’ to the 42nd General Hospital in Thessaloniki, Greece (then more widely known as Salonika), where an Allied expeditionary force had established a base for operations against pro-German Bulgaria. Arriving in summer 1916, MacDiarmid joined a Scottish contingent so great that wags nicknamed the city ‘Thistleonica’.

Writing to his mentor and former teacher George Ogilvie, MacDiarmid described the posting as a ‘cushie job’, giving a vivid account of his duties in a letter dated 20 August 1916:

The Sergeant-Caterer of the Officers’ Mess (that’s my new post in our little military world here) has to go ‘on deck’ at dinner – dinner commencing at 7.30 p.m. and running to some five courses – freshly-shaven, boots and buttons mirror-bright, properly dressed with belt and all. He does nothing, of course, save supervision. A spot of tarnish on a knife or fork – lack-lustre of a wine glass – uneven flaming of one of the hanging lamps – slackness on the part of the waiters – slow, slovenly, or uneven dishing-up on the part of the cooks – what an eye one develops for detail on such a job! […] and later when the Mess has come to the walnuts and almonds and the wine-steward is busy supplying Vin Blanc, Vin Russe, or Vin Muscat de Samos […] the Sergeant-Caterer and his staff dine too. (What an awful war, to be sure!)

The same blithe spirit is reflected in ‘A Salonikan Storm Song’, a poem signed ‘C.M.G., Salonika, 1st September 1916’ and sent to brother Andrew. A humorous depiction of the effects of a summer storm on a field hospital, it concludes:

Sing ho, for life in a tented field
On a night of storm and stress
Where chaos prevails and everything is
In the very deuce of a mess
And soaked and muddy and blown about
We still can laugh and sing
While the rain comes down in bucketfuls
And the wild fire has its fling!’

MS of 'A Salonikan Storm Song' (Gen. 2236/7)

MS of ‘A Salonikan Storm Song’ (Gen. 2236/7)

While hardly the kind of verse we now associate with the First World War (let alone with MacDiarmid!), the bravado of ‘Salonikan Storm Song’ is, in fact, typical of the military poetry published during the war itself. It seems likely that this poem formed part of a collection that MacDiarmid submitted to Erskine MacDonald’s ‘Solder Poets’ series under the projected title A Voice from Macedonia. Although provisionally accepted by MacDonald and praised by John Buchan, an early supporter of MacDiarmid who read it in manuscript, the collection never saw the light of day. Following protracted printing delays, MacDiarmid withdrew his MS, feeling that it was no longer timely.

Later comments by MacDiarmid reveal that life in Salonika was not quite as ‘cushie’ as the poem and the letters to Ogilvie suggest. Disease – malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery — was rampant, killing many more soldiers than the enemy did. In an interview given to Stella Duffy in 1975 (quoted in Alan Bold’s biography of the poet), MacDiarmid spoke of the extraordinary mortality rate and of the many friends he saw die in the General Hospital. MacDiarmid himself suffered three bouts of malaria and was eventually invalided home in May 1918.

Hugh MacDiarmid with Andrew Grieve (right). The brothers endured a fractious relationship.

A young MacDiarmid with Andrew Grieve (right) (Gen. 2236/3). The brothers endured a fractious relationship.

In the autobiographical Annals of the Five Senses (1923), he described the prevailing atmosphere in Salonika as one of ‘highly-coloured nightmarish unreality’, caused by the prevalence of disease, irregular mail, strict censorship, late and unreliable news, and a suspicion (endorsed by many historians) that the whole expedition was a ‘superfluous sideshow’. As MacDiarmid remarks, the Germans were known to joke that Salonika – home to 400,000 allied troups — was ‘the cheapest internment camp they had’. From a purely literary perspective, he wondered whether the ‘comparative stagnation and monotony’ of life in the city, coupled with the ‘gruesome dull routine of disease and misadventurous death, unaccompanied by the flame of guns and the glitter of steel’, dulled the imagination and explained why the Eastern Front produced much less memorable verse than the Western.

Nonetheless, the two years in Salonika proved a crucial formative experience for MacDiarmid. Ample time for reading, a multilingual atmosphere (the city housing French, Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Commonwealth troups), news of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, all helped forge the Marxist nationalism which would inspire his post-war poetry.

Paul Barnaby, Archives Team


  • Alan Bold, MacDiarmid = Christopher Murray Grieve: A Critical Biography (London: John Murray, 1988)
  • C. M. Grieve, Annals of the Five Senses, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: Porpoise Press, 1930)
  • J. T. D. Hall, ‘Hugh MacDiarmid Author and Publisher’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 21.1 (1986), 53-88.
  • The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters, ed. Catherine Kerrigan (Aberdeen University Press, 1988)


Science during Wartime

We have a more detailed analysis of the University’s response to the experience and aftermath of WW1 to come later on.  This article looks instead highlights a few of the changes in Science in and around the wartime years.

Campus changes

The Faculty of Science was founded in 1893. By 1906, pressure on space saw Engineering and Natural Philosophy move from the confines of the Old College campus to new accommodation at High School Yards.  Shortly before the outbreak of war, further pressure on space saw Mathematics move to Chambers Street and Agriculture & Forestry to 10 George Square. Plans to build a new home for Chemistry at High School Yards were however interrupted other than a bit of additional basement space.  These changes were the precursors to the permanent shift of Science from the central campus to the new Kings Buildings campus, which began shortly after the war.

Natural Philosophy: Junior Laboratory, c1910

Natural Philosophy: Junior Laboratory, c1910

Student numbers

Numbers of students studying science subjects dropped off during the wartime years, before rising dramatically afterwards.  In 1913/14, there were 428.  The lowest came in 1915/16, with 147.  Numbers then rose, eclipsing the pre-war figure in 1918/19 with 678.

Graduates in Agriculture, 1914

Graduates in Agriculture, 1914

The War Effort

In 1908, James Walker was appointed Professor of Chemistry. When, in 1915, there was a serious shortage of explosives, Walker, with colleagues, took over a disused chemical factory and began TNT production. The war years also saw losses amongst staff and students (which will be covered in another post). In Science, one such loss was Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire in 1915.

Further Reading

  • For a concise history of Science at the University of Edinburgh, read Birse, R. M., “Science at the University of Edinburgh, 1583-1983”
  • The Chemistry has a god summary history on its own web pages
  • Our History is a growing online resource about the history of the University


‘Doing their bit’: the remarkable life of nurse Yvonne FitzRoy

Today’s blog is by Louise, archivist at Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA), as she looks into a very singular wartime life:

On the surface, Yvonne FitzRoy (1891 – 1971) seemed an unlikely nurse. A privileged socialite (daughter of Sir Almeric FitzRoy and Katherine Farquhar), progressive and actress, she was in fact to serve on the battlefields of Russia and Romania as a nursing orderly to Elsie Inglis between 1916 and 1917 with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH).

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were set up as soon as war broke out by Edinburgh clinician and suffragist Dr Elsie Inglis, with the financial support of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

LHB8A-9 Elsie Inglis

Dr Elsie Inglis (LHB8A/9)

The all-female SWH units were formed in order to offer medical support to front-line troops, and by the end of the war there had been units based in France, Corsica, Salonika, Serbia, Russia, Romania and Malta. Although rejected by the War Office in Scotland (the famous rebuke to Dr Inglis was that, as a woman, she should ‘go home and sit still’), the aid of the SWH was accepted first by the French Red Cross, and a hospital was set up in Calais to treat Belgian troops. A hospital in the abbey of Royaumant soon followed.

The SWH are perhaps best known through their units in Serbia (work that still links Scotland to the area today). However, the Serbian army’s defeat by Austrian troops forced their withdrawal – Dr Inglis was captured and was returned to Britain; others who could escape chose to retreat in treacherous conditions with the Serbian army. However, in 1916, the London Suffrage Society financed another SWH unit of 80 women to support the Serbian army in Russia and Romania, of which Yvonne FitzRoy was one. LHSA is lucky enough to hold two letter books (LHB8/12/6 and 7) and one scrapbook (LHB8/12/8) that trace Yvonne’s work on this eastern front.


Yvonne’s appointment letter to the SWH (LHB8/12/8)


Luggage label from Yvonne’s journey to serve with the SWH on a captured Austrian ship (LHB8/12/8). According to her memoirs, her luggage consisted of ‘one kit-bag, one haversack, and a rug.’

Although SWH archives are held by Glasgow City Archives  and The Women’s Library, the pivotal role played by Elsie Inglis means that we have some intriguing material across LHSA collections (of which more as the weeks go on!): SWH work is reflected in archives from the Bruntsfield Hospital (where Dr Inglis was a surgeon), in the papers of the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital (opened as a memorial to Dr Inglis in 1925 with the remainder of the SWH funds) and in the personal collections of campaigners who fought to keep the memory of Dr Inglis alive. The letters and scrapbook created by Yvonne FitzRoy can be found in LHSA’s Bruntsfield Hospital collection.

Although not solely covering her time at the front, Yvonne’s scrapbook is dominated by the War and its aftermath. Reflecting her artistic and social life as well as her military one, the book is pasted with typed quotations, theatre scripts, postcards and programmes, indicating a love of words, the London stage and the idiosyncratic:


Memorabilia in Yvonne’s scrapbook (LHB8/12/8)

However, the levity of costume design, exhibitions and drama is soon punctuated by newspaper clippings of events in the theatre of war as European tensions grew in 1914.


A typical ‘text heavy’ page in Yvonne’s scrapbook (LHB8/12/8).

As a result of her services to the Russian sick and wounded, Yvonne FitzRoy was awarded a Russian medal for meritorious conduct, the ‘Order of Service’, which she was given government permission to wear:


Certificate of Yvonne FitzRoy’s ‘Order of Service’ medal (LHB8/12/8).

Her service throughout the war was also recognised by the British Red Cross and Order of St John organisations, which worked together during the war after forming a Joint War Committee:


Yvonne’s certificate for wartime services with the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem in England (LHB8/12/8).

Like others who served with SWH, Yvonne FitzRoy seemed to have been involved with the Voluntary Aid Detachments, women (who came to be known as VADs) who volunteered in county Red Cross hospitals. Yvonne seems to have used her literary skills in work for a hospital magazine, the Egginton Howl, the magazine of Egginton Hall Red Cross Hospital near Derby.

The Egginton Howl was even praised in this December 1916 article by The Spectator: The letter by Rudyard Kipling mentioned in the article is in fact pasted into Yvonne’s scrapbook, indicating that at this time she must have been closely involved in the magazine’s production:


Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Yvonne FitzRoy (LHB12/8/8).

Not content with one literary autograph, Yvonne managed to collect another trophy, in the shape of a questionable pun and endearing sketch from author HG Wells:


HG Wells caricature (LHB8/12/8).

Following the war, Yvonne (like other SWH medical staff) chose to write a memoir of their experiences working on the front line. Her memoir, With the Scottish Nurses in Roumania, was published in 1918, giving an account of her life at the front – it was dedicated to Dr Inglis, who died from cancer on 26th November 1917 just as she had returned to Britain. Yvonne’s adventures did not end with peacetime, however. In 1921, she was appointed as Private Secretary to Alice, Marchioness of Reading, wife of the British Viceroy in India, a post that she occupied until 1926. Yvonne’s life in India can be pieced together through another memoir, Courts and Camps in India: Impressions of Viceregal Tours 1921 – 1924, or through her personal papers from this time held at the British Library. The cuttings and correspondence in her scrapbook also reflect this period of her life:


Greetings card sent from the Viceroy’s Camp, c. 1924 (LHB8/12/8).

Yvonne’s letters home to her parents are more directly focused upon her SWH period, covering September 1916 to January 1917, when she travelled between Russia and Romania with ‘Hospital A’, headed by Dr Inglis. From her journey east to life treating patients at the front and retreating and advancing in the wake of Allied campaigns, Yvonne’s collected letters cover her friendships, leisure time, daily life and the business of staying warm, including frequent mentions of ‘Swedish drill… all of us flat on our backs… waving our grey legs in the air’ (6th September 1916). Frequent references to the ‘Russian censor’ preclude any detailed references to military manoeuvres, victories or defeats, but on some occasions working conditions are mentioned in more detail:

‘Now we are about 10 miles from the firing line, and Hospital B has gone off to act as our clearing station. I am really glad to be in A. B won’t probably see more of the fighting than we shall, and from the medical point of view our work will be the most interesting as they simply dress the wounds and send the men straight on. Here they only stay a day or two if they are well enough but anyway that give us enough time to cope with things a little. Also I am with Dr Inglis and have got the pick of the sisters in my Ward headed by a Bart’s nurse – my word what a difference a big hospital training makes! We arrive just in time for the biggest rush of wounded they’ve yet had and got 100 in before we were half ready. Every soul worked like bricks but the first few days were just terrific. Now, in all the confusion, we are beginning to see daylight and in a day or two shall have our next two Wards open.’ (10th October 1916)

As the extract above hints, Yvonne’s letters also give her personal insight into Elsie Inglis. In a 1919 letter to Eva Shaw McLaren, who was to publish a history of the SWH and a biography of Elsie Inglis, Yvonne wrote:

‘You know it wasn’t at least an easy job to win the best kind of service from a mixed lot of women – the trained members of which had never worked under a woman before – and were ready with their very narrow outlook to seize on any and every opportunity for criticism. There was a tremendous amount of opposition, more or less grumblingly expressed at first. No-one hesitated to do what they were told – you wouldn’t with Dr Inglis as a chief, would you – but it was grudgingly done. In the end it was all for the best. If she had been the kind of person who took trouble to rouse an easy personal enthusiasm the whole thing would have fallen to pieces at the first stress of work – equally if she had never inspired more than respect she would never have won the quality of service she succeeded in doing.’ (9th November 1919)

Weighing up Dr Inglis’ ‘loveable personality that lay at the root of her leadership’ with her ‘strength and singleness of purpose’ (which did not always endear her to those around her at first sight), Yvonne provides a counter to the ‘fanatics’ (as she describes them) whose awe at the work of the SWH coloured their perceptions – also revealing Yvonne’s own individuality and strength, which must have carried her through a particularly harsh Russian winter.


Yvonne in her SWH uniform (LHB8/12/8).

Louise Williams, Archivist, Lothian Health Services Archive