Surgeon Katherine S Macphail

Biography of Surgeon Katherine S Macphail

Katherine MacPhail spent much of her adult life in Serbia, and continues to be well remembered there for the contribution she made to orthopaedic surgery, especially in the Children's Hospital in Sremska Kamenica. She was born on 30th October 1887. Just short of her nineteenth birthday she matriculated at Queen Margaret College, University of Glasgow, to study medicine. Medicine at the College was at that time, in 1906, still a separate women's department, and the University had only been granting medical degrees to women for just over a decade, Dr Marion Gilchrist having paved the way in 1894.

At University, Katherine lived at 25 Highburgh Road, care of a Miss Gibbon, though the family home was at Calder Villa, Whifflet. Her father, Donald, was a doctor, and Katherine followed in his footsteps. Her undergraduate record suggests she was a conscientious, bright student and her name appears several times on the prize-list. In her first year she gained a second-class certificate in Practical Zoology. The following year, 1907-1908, she took a first class certificate in Physiology, and in subsequent years, second class certificates in Anatomy (1908-1909) and Surgery (1910-1911). She graduated MB ChB in 1911.

Katherine's sister, Isabel Macphail, had graduated MA the previous year. When war broke out, the sisters offered their services to the Scottish Women's Hospitals. Women were not permitted to serve in the armed forces, but a group of energetic medical women, spear-headed by Edinburgh graduate Elsie Inglis, equipped and staffed their own hospitals, with the support of the National Women's Suffrage Societies.

Their offer of these facilities to the British Government was turned down, but the French showed more willing and the first of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service was set up at Royaumont towards the end of 1914. Further hospitals followed in Serbia in early 1915. Isabel and Katherine set off for Serbia, Isabel as an orderly, Katherine as a surgeon. Apparently, Katherine was initially worried about what the other members of the unit would be like. She wrote;

"We knew we were being sent out under the auspices of the Suffrage Societies, and each was afraid that every other was a strong supporter, but were much relieved to find that almost none of us was what might be called 'strong', and that Serbia was the common bond, not suffrage."

When she arrived there, she and another junior doctor, Adeline Campbell, were dismayed by the tasks they were given to do at Kragvievatz, and felt that an orderly could have done them. They persuaded their superior, Dr Soltan, to release them, and they went on to the Military Hospital at Belgrade, incurring the wrath of the committee of the Scottish Women's Hospital, who declined to employ Katherine again. Undeterred, Katherine continued her lifetime's work in Serbia.

After the war Katherine remained in Serbia, running her own small hospital, the Anglo-Serbian Children's Hospital in Belgrade with some funding from the Scottish Women's Hospitals and the Save the Children Fund. Her war work had been honoured by the Serbian government, which conferred the distinction of the Serbian Order of St Sava and the Serbian Red Cross.

Her peacetime work was recognised in 1928, when she was awarded the OBE. Her work was far from finished, however. In 1934 she established the English-Yugoslav Hospital for Treatment of Osteoarticular Tuberculosis in Sremska Kamenica. She continued her work there until 1941, when she and other British residents were taken prisoner by the Germans.

She was repatriated to Britain, but returned to Belgrade in 1945 with one of the first relief units. Under a new post-war regime, foreigners were less welcome. After the nationalisation of the hospital she left for Scotland in 1949 and settled in St Andrews. There she resided at 4 Kinburn Place. Katherine MacPhail, a heroine in war and peace, died in 1974.


Surgeon Katherine S Macphail
Rank: Surgeon
Regiment: Scottish Womens Hospital - Serbia
Degree: MB ChB
Awards: Serbian Order of St Sava, Serbian Red Cross
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: N/A


University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records

Leah Leneman, In the Service of Life: The Story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women's Hospitals (Edinburgh, Mercat, 1994)

Z Mikic and A Lesic, 70 Years of English-Yugoslav Children's Hospital for Osteoarticular Tuberculosis in Sremska Kamenica, article in Srp Arh Celokb Lek (November-December, 2004)

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