The Orphans’ Doctor: Mabel Elliott (Part II)

When we last left Dr. Mabel Elliott in Part I, she had sailed home to the U.S. for a much-needed period of recuperation. She had just survived a life-threatening journey from Marash to Islahai. But it wasn’t long before Dr. Elliott heard the call of duty yet again.

Recalled to Duty

Near East Relief approached Dr. Elliott about a new partnership: Elliott would start a new hospital and dispensary to serve the growing refugee population in Trebizond. The staff would be chosen by American Women’s Hospitals, Dr. Elliott’s primary organization, and Near East Relief would furnish all supplies. But in late 1920, the conflict between Turkish Nationalists, the young Republic of Armenia, and the Soviet army reached a boiling point. Despite the great need, Trebizond and the surrounding region of Kars was simply too dangerous for a new hospital. Near East Relief moved more than 10,000 orphans from Kars to Alexandropol and made the decision to open the new hospital in Ismid.

Known in Biblical times as Nicomedia, the city of Ismid had played an important role in the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Ismid was a diverse cultural center and a strategic port thanks to its proximity to Constantinople. Ismid’s location overlooking the Sea of Marmara meant plenty of fresh sea air for patients. The nearby railroad meant that supplies could be procured easily.

At left: Dr. Mabel Elliott with young trachoma patients in Ismid, c. 1921. Image courtesy of the Drexel University School of Medicine Archives & Special Collections. 

Many of these children are brought to us with their knees drawn up to their chins, and they have lain such a long time in this position trying to keep or get warm, that it takes days of oil-rubbing to loosen up the tendons sufficiently to draw their legs down straight.

Saving Lives in Ismid

Dr. Elliott arrived in Ismid in December 1920, while the American and British warships were still circling the harbor. Although World War I had ended, the Greco-Turkish War continued to devastate the region. Once again, Elliott found herself in the midst of a refugee crisis: Ismid was the temporary home of 6,000 Armenian refugees, nearly as many Ottoman Greek refugees, and a large and crowded Near East Relief orphanage.

Dr. Elliott inherited an abandoned Turkish hospital that had been used by Greek soldiers. She and her staff set about creating a 100-bed modern medical facility for the refugee community. Elliott also launched a smaller clinic to treat less urgent cases, as well as a nursing school for refugee women. Across the gulf, Bardizag became the new home of a special hospital where those suffering from contagious diseases could be treated in isolation; this helped to reduce epidemics like typhus and tuberculosis in the refugee camps.

Every single child who arrived in Ismid was malnourished. Malnutrition caused severe muscle weakness and atrophy. It also left the children unable to heal from even the most minor injuries. The children were reintroduced to food slowly for two reasons: firstly, because supplies were limited; and secondly, because too much food could rupture a malnourished child’s compromised digestive organs. Elliott and her staff established a convalescent home in Bardizag for children who were well enough to leave the Ismid hospital, but not yet well enough to reenter the orphanage or refugee community. Many of the children in Ismid also suffered from trachoma, a horribly contagious eye disease caused by bacterial infection of the inner eyelid. Left untreated, trachoma could lead to partial or full vision loss. Dr. Elliott started a specialized trachoma hospital to address this issue.

A Second Siege

The city of Ismid soon became a battleground in the Greco-Turkish War. Dr. Elliott and three American nurses — Mabel Powers, Leila Priest, and Griselle MacClaren — continued to operate the hospital during the fighting. The refugee community fled the region as the war raged. Elliott and her staff opened the hospital to both Greek and Turkish soldiers. The convalescent home in Bardizag was completely cut off by the fighting.

In June 1921, the Greek army withdrew from Ismid. Dr. Elliott continued to operate the Near East Relief hospital with permission from the from the Turkish Nationalists for three more months — but she hadn’t come to Ismid to care for soldiers. She finally left Ismid in September 1921, bound for her most ambitious assignment yet: Medical Director of Near East Relief’s work in the Caucasus”.

Every Child a Patient

Alexandropol had suffered its own siege. The railroad town had been occupied by Turkish Nationalist troops from November 1920 until April 1921. During that time, 200,000 orphans and refugees were cut off from all food and supplies. Dr. Elliott entered a new Armenia — the fledgling republic was now under Soviet rule.

As Medical Director for all Near East Relief orphanages in the region, Dr. Elliott found herself in charge of the health and well-being of an astonishing 30,000 children. More than half of them lived in the massive orphanage complex at Alexandropol, which consisted of the former Russian army bases at Kazachi, Seversky, and Polygon posts. Children continued to pour into Alexandropol at a distressing rate. As in Ismid, all of the children were malnourished. Most suffered from at least one contagious disease, such as typhus, typhoid fever, or favus (a scalp disease). Each child that was accepted to the orphanage was aggressively bathed to reveal any visible infections or parasites. The children’s heads were shaved to eliminate head lice, as well as fleas and ticks, which spread disease.

Trachoma was rampant. At the time, there were no antibiotics to treat this bacterial infection — but copper had been shown to prevent transmission. Upon arrival, each child received a copper pencil in a personal box. This pencil was the most valuable weapon in the fight against trachoma. Every resident of Alexandropol began each day by rubbing the copper pencil on the inside of his or her eyelids. Dr. Elliott and the medical staff, which included eye specialist Dr. R.T. Uhls, oversaw the conversion of Seversky Post into a specialized trachoma hospital for 6,000 patients. Within two years, the number of cases was almost halved.

In Armenia, we found the medical relief for 30,000 children on our hands. I mean this literally. There was not one healthy child among them.

Dr. Mabel Elliott, Beginning Again at Ararat, 1923.

A Fearless Leader

Dr. Elliott supervised fourteen Near East Relief hospitals in the Caucasus region. This was an impressive accomplishment on many levels. In 1919, Dr. Elliott had left a country where, by virtue of her sex, she could not legally vote in an election. Less than three years later and half a world away from home, she was in charge of the largest hospital and clinic system in the world.

Dr. Elliott was constantly called upon to organize medical services during refugee crises, so it wasn’t long before her expertise was required elsewhere. In September 1922, Elliott traveled to Geneva, Switzerland for the second meeting of the Medical Women’s International Association. She reported on her work in the Caucasus, and plans were made for Dr. Elliott to begin working in Constantinople. A week later, Smyrna burned.

Dr. Elliott left Constantinople for Rodosto, East Thrace. Rodosto was already home to hundreds of families resettled by Near East Relief from camps near Constantinople. At the time Eastern Thrace was part of Greece, and the Greek government had granted 6,000 acres of land for refugee use. Rodosto had been making a name for itself as a farming community and a welcoming new home. Thousands more refugees arrived in Rodosto in the wake of the Smyrna disaster.

Greece ceded East Thrace (including Rodosto) to Turkey in late 1922 as a result of the Greco-Turkish War. The refugees were relocated yet again as a condition of the mandatory population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Dr. Elliott was named Director of Near East Relief’s medical operations in Greece, in collaboration with American Women’s Hospitals.

Elliott made her way to Mityelene, Lesvos, Greece, where she set up medical headquarters in October 1922. She arrived with cases of food and medicals supplies. Fifteen doctors volunteered to serve under Dr. Elliott’s direction. Within a few weeks, Elliott had set up an emergency hospital, two clinics, and a milk distribution point. From her base on Lesbos, Dr. Elliott supervised all of NER’s medical work in Greece, including Athens, Rodosto, and Piraeus.

By the time she returned to the U.S. in October 1923, Dr. Elliott had set up 7 Greek hospitals, numerous clinics, and a quarantine hospital for refugees on Macronissi to prevent the spread of disease. One hundred years later, Lesvos is once again a critical location — this time for Syrian refugees.

At right: Dr. Mabel Elliott in her American Women’s Hospitals uniform.  Image from Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy’s “Certain Samaritans.”


Mapping Mabel Elliott