On the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered the First World War, this blog commemorates the remarkable Ayrshire GP, Charles McKerrow. This week’s post is by guest lecturer and friend of the Museum, Dr Emily Mayhew, Research Associate at Imperial College London.
For Scottish GP Charles McKerrow, August 1914 was a time where, as for so many others, his best-laid plans for the future began to unravel. He had joined the family practice in Barns Street, Ayr. Eventually his father George would retire, but by then, McKerrow would have had time to grow into his role and responsibilities. Decisions could be made but not rushed: should he buy a car? Get a telephone for the surgery, or one of the speaking tube intercom systems? The surgery itself was small, in the house next door to his own. There was talk that a larger house would become available nearby, detached, and with a number of separate rooms but this would be expensive. He would have an actual surgery in which to work, perhaps even have a waiting room and office but he would need to increase the patient load, which meant in turn more administrative work collecting fees and panel charges. He couldn’t advertise his practice but a fine house spoke of a prosperous and therefore effective doctor. The move would eventually be worth the effort and extra expense.
He had no such worries about the future Mrs McKerrow. In August 1914, he had become engaged to Jean Craik. His family had been delighted. Jean was tough and bright. Her father had been a railway builder and she had grown up on the move, living between postings in remote areas of India and South America. Ayr. Life with McKerrow offered her the chance to put down roots and prove herself. GPs’ wives were essential components of the practice. They managed appointment books, made up the accounts, dispensed medication, kept the supply cupboards full and were the gatekeeper between the public and the doctor. Jean would always be on duty when in the town. She needed to be cheerful, to encourage new patients to call at Barns Street, to be enthusiastic with everyone about their young doctor. She would be the image of the devoted, efficient doctor’s wife although McKerrow knew he could rely on her equally for her professional support of his research interests and ambitions. They relished the future they planned for themselves, a partnership and a family.
As the outbreak of war became inevitable, notices ran in the medical journals for young, newly qualified medical men to join as volunteers for service in the Army. The Scottish response was particularly fast and urged retirees to return to practice to allow men under forty to go to war. McKerrow would have gone immediately but his father had become ill. So, instead of the older man taking back the practice, the son stayed behind, taking it on several years ahead of schedule, watching in frustration as not enough of his peers left for France. Deficiencies in the numbers of Regimental Medical Officers were obvious from the outset, becoming more acute as a number were killed in the battles of the Marne within weeks of arriving. McKerrow stayed in Barns Street, treating his father as well as the entire patients list on his own. In January 1915 he married Jean, and they moved with the practice into the bigger house. By April, with Jean pregnant with their first child, McKerrow knew he could no longer stay behind. The Scottish RAMC committees called for a further 400 RMOs and he would be one of them. His patients were allocated to other practices in Ayr. He and Jean set aside all their plans for the duration. In May he was assigned as RMO to the 10th battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. By August 1915 he was in France, and Jean adjusted, becoming the practice manager for his aid post and billet all the way from Barns Street. “Hear my wants” he wrote to her, just after arriving at his first . “Tommy’s cooker refill, ½lb Capstan medium, ½ lb chocolate, ½ lb good tea, weekly: a cake very often – also letters.”
Since researching Charles McKerrow for her publication Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918, Emily has continued to develop her work on this extraordinary man, whose name we should all know. Those of you who attended our Remembrance Day talk last year will remember that members of the McKerrow family introduced themselves in a very moving moment for speaker and audience. In addition to Wounded, you can find out more about the work of McKerrow during World War One through Emily’s work in The Scotsman online, Surgeons News and the journal of The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (we have also just found out that Charles McKerrow will be featured in the upcoming BBC programme ‘Drumhead’ to be shown on 10th of August in Scotland).