Seventy years ago today, Great Britain and its Dominions (later the Commonwealth) celebrated the end of the war in Europe with jubilation and expressions of joy. At the RCOG’s headquarters in Queen Anne Street, London, the College held its 17th Annual General Meeting on 26 May 1945 – barely two weeks after VE Day, however little mention was made of the celebrations, and virtually nothing can be found in the College Archive relating to widespread relief or feelings on the cessation of hostilities. This is interesting knowing that College business was certainly affected by the Second World War: there is evidence in letters of the Blitz and later doodlebugs, College valuables were shipped off to the countryside, and thoughts on demobilisation were being discussed during the late summer months of 1944.
It was noted in the AGM that College Council had been busier than ever ‘to keep pace with the increased activities of the College’ (the White Paper on a National Health Service, and a report on Maternity Services being just two of the issues), and the only nod to wartime activity comes in the following paragraph:
‘…a warm tribute to members of the Council, Standing Committees and Special Committees, for the generous and self-sacrificing way they have worked for the College. I want the body of members to try and realize to the full what this meant. Long railway journeys last year were always difficult and uncomfortable; trains were unpunctual and arrived hours overdue, often there was only standing room, seldom was there heating, and never a restaurant car. Such journeys must sometimes have been a nightmare. But Councillors and Committee-men were not deterred. The way in which our distant colleagues have sustained, by regular attendance, the work and life of the College has been an example to those of us who live in London, and it is one that we can never forget. We had, of course to do without our Irish colleagues, but it was only the travel restrictions that kept them away.’
While to us today this seems like a description of our everyday commute into London, this was evidently a sign of hard times felt by 1940s consultants!
The 1945 Annual Report pays tribute to several of Fellows who died during the year, two of whom were actively engaged on war work right up to the time of their death: Frances Ivens Knowles, a Foundation Fellow who had been conspicuous for her service with the Scottish Women’s Hospital during the First World War, was acting as a medical inspector for the Red Cross in Cornwall, as well as an organizer of liaison officers looking after the welfare of soldiers and their relatives, and Gordon William Fitzgerald, another Foundation Fellow who left military service following the First World War with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was in command of the Didsbury Military Hospital during the Second World War.
Correspondence in the files of the RCOG’s External Affairs Committee include complaints about how Members and Fellows of the College felt ‘completely lost in the matter’ of demobilisation and ‘uneasy about the future’. Alistair Gunn (1903-1970), later Honorary Librarian for the College, wrote to President, Sir Eardley Holland, ‘in the Navy, serving Gynaecologists have not been employed as such. Most of us have been working as surgical specialists…I am quite appalled by the prospect of any prolongation of this 5 years divorce from Obstetrics and Gynaecology…’ He went on to say that ‘It is a source of great anxiety to me to contemplate the disastrous effect which any prolongation of the 5 dead years in my professional life may have on what special knowledge and skill I have so laboriously acquired.’
Gunn was one of the lucky ones, and managed to achieve his full potential, serving the College and his profession well. Others, whose training had been interrupted by the War, were not so lucky and faced great obstacles in obtaining roles which might support them and their families following demobilisation.