26 May 2015

Women doctors were vital in WW1 Europe

In 1887, while women were still denied the right to vote in the Australian colonies, 7 women began medical degrees at the Melbourne Medical School and two of them graduated in 1891. And the University of Sydney Medical School first produced two women grad­uates in 1893. Yet by 1914, only two decades later, there were 130 women registered as medical practitioners across Australia. Of course their access to hospital residencies and clinical appointments was still highly restricted, but they were there!

As soon as WW1 erupted in 1914, women doctors quickly under­stood the demands it would make on doctors, nurses and other health professionals. The women doctors responded with the same mix of motives that male doctors felt – to serve God, King and country; to get away from the confines of home and see the world; and to practise their profession in a useful way.

But for women there were additional considerations. The war might enable career opportun­ities to open up for women doctors who in 1914 were still margin­alised within the profession. The thinking went that if the war continued, the need for doctors would be so great that women would be fully accepted within their profession.

Dr Louisa Anderson, British surgeon
operating on patients in Paris

Voice Newspaper also tells another story. War was an extraordinary test of the limits of the profession, and would elicit vast advances in medicine: plastic surgery, psychiatry, and innovations in the treatment of wounds and disease. Ambitious women wanted to be part of those advances.

It will surprise no-one that the Australian and the British Armed Forces refused to employ women doctors. The British Army did eventually relax the case against women doctors later in WW1, but the Australian Army did not appoint a female doctor until 1943! So women took other routes eg working for the Red Cross. Occasionally they travelled in independent medical units. Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson was the first woman in Britain to cross the Channel and set up an operating theatre in an empty hotel in Paris. Within days, she was operating on wounded French and Belgian soldiers .

Were the Australian policy makers worried that women would be killed or wounded in the war zones and were being very protective of the gentle sex? Was the army fearful that poor hygiene and limited supplies would endanger the standards of Australian health care delivered in Europe? Apparently not. At least 2,500 qualified and experienced Australian nurses successfully served overseas during WWI. This suggests that it wasn’t being female that bothered the army. Rather it was that war was Men’s Business; female doctors would be officers and authority figures, a role in war that would be offensive to men.

Australian Dr Agnes Bennett 1916-1917 
She was the commanding officer of the 7th Medical Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia and Serbia.

And another piece of evidence. Due to a lack of medical officers in 1917 and 1918, a number of Australian theatre sisters worked as nurse anaesthetists in Casualty Clearing Stations in France. The army was desperate and I am delighted that 9 Australian nurses were given permission by the Australian authorit­ies to participate - the British Army provided three months’ training for Australian, British and New Zealand nurses in the use of chloro­form and ether. Yet the same authorities could have easily permitted women doctors to work in the Casualty Clearing Stations in France, partially solving the core problem: lack of medical officers.

In the event, it seems that twenty five Australian women doctors served in WW1. But because they were not allowed to serve in an Aust­ralian unit because of our governmental policy, their contribution has never been formally recog­nised here in Australia. They HAD to serve in other units overseas.

Looking For the Evidence is full of excellent examples. In 1914 Dr Katie Ardill applied to serve with the Austral­ian Expeditionary Forces and was of course refused. So she made her own way to Egypt in 1915 and then onto Britain where she joined the British Expeditionary Forces as one of the first women doctors in field services. Dr Ardill was appointed to the medical staff at the County Middlesex War Hospital in St Albans in 1915. Her next appointment was at the Anglo-Belgian Military Hospital in Calais and was appointed to the rank of Captain. Under the British Red Cross Society, she worked in a Belgian hospital and then the Citadel Hospital in Cairo. Altogether Dr Ardill served for four years in Britain, France, Belgium and Egypt. Dr Agnes Bennett was also from Sydney. Serving with the French Red Cross, Dr Bennett became the first female commissioned officer in the British Army in 1915, when as a captain she worked in war hospitals in Cairo. In 1916-17 she was in charge of a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals on the Serbian front.

23 May 2015

El Greco In New York

I would love to have seen the El Greco (1541–1614) paintings in New York. Not because I thought he was the finest artist in the history of humanity. But because views about his art have changed SO radically, both during his own life-time and since his death.

In the meantime, I have had to rely on The Guardian. Since El Greco was the toughest and trendiest artist of the late C16th-early C17th, we can probably understand the wild gyrations in his reputation. At his death in 1614 he was a well known painter of religious scenes and portraits. Then he fell into obscurity – too dark for his Baroque successors, too unnatural for the Enlightenment. It was only with the catastrophic Napoleonic occupation of Spain that El Greco’s works were carried off to Paris and his reputation el­ev­ated once again. Now he is being feted like a Spanish soccer star once again.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, a special collaboration brought together all ten of the artist’s paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York, the finest outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Also displayed were six loans from the Hispanic Society of America. During the same period, New York’s Frick Collection exhibited its three El Greco pictures together for the first time.

Cardinal Nino de Guevara, Archbishop of Seville and and Inquisitor General
by El Greco, 1600
171 x 108 cms,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection.

So El Greco in New York, which finished in Feb 2015, was a mini-retrospective of the artist spanning almost all of his car­eer, from his arrival in Venice in 1567, his move to Rome in 1570 and his long residence in Toledo until his death in 1614. The list of paintings on display was as follows:

Christ Healing the Blind (Metrop)
Christ Carrying the Cross (Metrop)
Portrait of an Old Man (?self-portrait, Metrop)
A View of Toledo (Metrop)
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (Metrop)
Saint Jerome as a Scholar (Metrop)
The Vision of Saint John (Metrop)
Saint Andrew (Workshop of El Greco, (Metrop))
Adoration of the Shepherds (Metrop)
Adoration of the Shepherds (El Greco and Workshop, Metrop)
Pietà (Hispanic Society of America)
The Holy Family (Hispanic Society of America)
Portrait of a Man (miniature: Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Jerome as a Penitent (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Luke (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Francis (Hispanic Society of America)
Purification of the Temple (at The Frick Collection
Portraits of Vincenzo Anastagi (at The Frick Collection)
Portrait of St Jerome (at The Frick Collection).

I had a feeling that although El Greco was an artist whose emotional style openly expressed the passion of Counter-Reformation Spain, he was not a very socially skilled human being. He never bothered marrying his lady friend, the mother of his only child (b1578). And he seemed to spend his waking hours in the silence and sterile atmosphere of monasteries. But the Metropolitan exhibition suggests that he definitely not a social hermit. On the contrary, he ran a well-staffed studio – some of his assistants’ works were on view in the Met. In fact if he was in debt from time to time, it was thanks to his lavish lifestyle and constant social life.

So why didn’t he flourish in Italy, party-central for the late C16th? It seems ironical, or downright silly, that El Greco succeeded in conservative Toledo, rather than multicultural Venice or art-obsessed Rome.  Toledo gave him the freedom to abandon conventional represent­ation and to deform his figures in the way we find so modern. As the excellent museum-catalogue shows.

Saint Jerome as a Scholar (in the red robes of a cardinal)
by El Greco c1610
108 x 89 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two lectures series were held alongside the Met’s dis­play of El Greco’s works, to honour the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. The first was El Greco at the Met, given by Keith Christiansen, Chair­man of European Paintings and Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings. It dealt with the Metropolitan’s holdings of El Greco, from the artist’s early years in Venice to his last projects in Toledo.

The second, El Greco: Spirit and Paradox, was given Keith Christiansen who explored the notion of El Greco as a precursor to Modernism, the artist’s failures in Italy, and the anachronistically sublime painter he became in Spain.

There was also a Spanish musical ensemble presenting El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers. The intimate programme included the most iconic music from his birth place of Crete as well as from his time in Venice and Rome, and concluded with music from the Spanish city of Toledo.


One question still remained for me. If, at the turn of the century, El Greco's work was almost unknown in the USA, how did some of his finest paintings get there? The director of the Metropolitan back in 1981 wrote that Louisine Havemeyer  did more than any other individual to create the interest in El Greco. Sugar magnates Mrs. Havemeyer and her husband Henry discovered his work about 1901, while on a trip to Spain, and were immediately attracted to "its intensity, its individuality, its freedom and its colour." Aided by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Havemeyer set out in pursuit of El Greco's paintings; her Memoirs provide a fascinating account of the successes and disappointments of the chase, as well as of the opportunities offered to collectors of her day. Louisine Havemeyer's 1929 bequest to the Metropolitan was vitally important in the American public's understanding of El Greco.

19 May 2015

Catching a mass murderer in Australia - the Ivan Milat case

Gun culture never seemed to have much of a presence in C20th Aust­ralian history. There were occasional mass shootings in Australia during that era, but the shooters seemed to murder their own family members or rival bikie gangs. They rarely went after random strangers.

Then a rather hideous change occurred in Australian society. Julian Knight killed 19 strangers in the Hoddle St Massacre in Melbourne (1987), Frank Vitkovic killed 8 people in the Queen St Murders in Melbourne (1987) and three mass shootings happened in NSW in 1990, 1991 and 1992. So serious was the crisis that guns were outlawed from private hands straight after Martin Bryant shot 35 people in the Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania in 1996.

Perhaps the lack of a gun culture was why it was so difficult to even detect The Backpacker Murders in the Belanglo State Forest of New South Wales, only an hour's drive from Sydney. This spate of serial killings occur­r­ed during the early 1990s and may have been carried out by one or two people. The bodies of seven missing young adults (none was older than 22) were eventually discovered partly buried in the state forest between 1992 and 1993. Five of the victims were European backpackers visiting Australia and the others were Australian backpackers from the southern states. Over 300 police officers were assigned to the case.

 Welcome to Belanglo State Forest

Who would pose with a gun in Australia?
Ivan Milat must have thought he was invincible

Local man Ivan Milat (born 1944) was one of 14 children born to an impoverished migrant family, rural, isolated and gun obsessed. Despite exhibiting psychopathic tendencies from his early teenage years and an active criminal record as an adult, it took a long time to identify Ivan Milat as the Backpacker Murderer. And consider how long it took. In January 1990 the first attempted murder occurred in the state forest, followed by the successful murders, but Milat did not have to appear in court (on robbery and weapon charges) until May 1994!

Milat never confessed to any other crimes. It was only forensic evidence that could link Milat to the gruesome and violent killing of the hitchhikers — he used hunting knives, ropes, cloth gags and a collection of legal and illegal firearms to brutalise and subdue his prey.

Following continued police investigations, Milat was finally charged with the murders of the seven backpackers. In March 1996, the murder trials opened and he was eventually convicted. Today Milat is serving seven consecutive life sentences.

Police have always suspected there were other victims in the early 1990s that have not yet been located. What they did not know was that Ivan Milat shot a Sydney taxi driver and paralysed him in 1962. As one of the Milat brothers told the police, Ivan was only 17 at the time. According to The West Australian, the discovery reveals a new victim and a path of brutal criminality that began long before anyone suspected.


Although docu-dramas usually irritate me because they exag­g­erate the “real” characters for dramatic effect, I very much wanted to watch Catching Milat on tv. Catching Milat (played by Mal Kennard) tells the story of how the NSW Police Taskforce, and in particular Detective Paul Gordon (played by Richard Cawthorne), tracked down and caught the man responsible for the infamous Backpacker Murders. Yes the Milat family members were dysfunctional, the public terrorised, the computers primitive and the police not always successful, but it was the process that was so fascinating. This real live case gripped the nation back in the early 1990s and, due to its backpacker victims, attracted fearful international headlines. Now in May 2015, the case is gripping the nation once again.

The second half of the Catching Milat miniseries will screen on the Seven Network on Sunday 24th May 2015.