Graduation 2017/1917: Medics Move Across The World

Today’s medical graduates share one graduation day, but in 1917 there were two: the 6th of April (Good Friday) and the 21st of July.  The added early graduation was due to the First World War, which created an urgent need for doctors.

The First World War shaped the careers of almost all of 1917’s medical graduates, and is a major reason why the class of 1917 travelled so widely.


Matriculation slip of Mabel Blake, 1916/17 (ref. R8/5/37/4)

The Royal Army Medical Corps not only took 1917 graduates to the Western Front, but also across Europe and to East Africa. Mabel Blake was from a Greenock draper’s family, and had lost her father before arriving at Glasgow University aged 18. Despite struggling at first, Mabel flourished in her last two years, winning a first class certificate in Clinical Surgery.

Her skills were in immediate demand, and so she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals American Unit, an organisation closely linked to the women’s suffrage movement which bypassed British military restrictions on women’s participation in the War. Mabel’s unit treated Serbian soldiers in Salonika, northern Greece, and Serbia, following the Serbian Army as it retreated. At Vranje the unit faced particularly unsanitary conditions and acute demand; Mabel Blake was awarded the Serbia Red Cross 1st degree. After the War’s end Mabel Blake returned to Glasgow, working at Belvidere Fever Hospital.

Lilias Maclay is an interesting example of how the War indirectly brought the class of 1917 across the world.  The daughter of Lord Maclay, Glasgow shipowner and Minister of Shipping from 1916-1921, Lilias excelled at the University of Glasgow. In addition to passing every exam first time (performing especially well in Physics), she earned successive first class certificates in Clinical Surgery. Lilias’ eldest brother Eben died in the War, shortly after expressing a wish to become a medical missionary. Perhaps because of this and her strong faith (she was Secretary of Queen Margaret College Christian Union whilst at University) Lilias became a medical missionary.

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Excerpt from Lilias Maclay’s medical graduation schedule (ref. MED5/2/4)

Dr Maclay and her husband were involved in both domestic and international politics; their guests from India and Africa included independence movement leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyere, as well as some of the most prominent UK politicians of the day. Lilias Maclay’s daughter Martha Steedman followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a medical missionary in the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim.

Of course, some graduates had already done their fair share of globetrotting to reach Glasgow! Monindra Nath Bhattacharjee was one of them, travelling from Bengal to study. After graduating Monindra joined the Indian Medical Service, becoming a temporary lieutenant in January 1919.


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Photograph of William Harold Palmer, from Medical Final Year Dinner Booklet (ref. DC225/1/15)

William Harold Palmer was another: Palmer was born in Melbourne to Thomas Palmer, a journalist and tutor. By the time William Palmer matriculated the family had already moved to Cape Town, South Africa. After graduating Palmer joined the Royal Arm Medical Corps, and was deployed to German East Africa within 3 months of graduating. He was promoted to Captain in January 1918 for his work in establishing hospitals at Mingoyo and Massasse. After the War Palmer practiced medicine in South Africa, and was responsible for the building of the hospital in Kensington and Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. He used his Scottish connections to raise funds for the poor, both black and white.



Quote chosen by Palmer’s classmates to describe him in the Medical Final Year Dinner Booklet (ref. DC225/1/15

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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