The Orphans’ Doctor: Mabel Elliott and Near East Relief

Dr. Mabel Elliott was a physician with American Women’s Hospitals. She joined Near East Relief on loan from AWH in 1919, and served NER until October 1923. Elliott’s work with NER took her to the most dangerous and desperate places: Marash, Ismid, Alexandropol, the Greek Islands. The intrepid Dr. Elliott was a true public health pioneer. This is the first installment in a two-part series on Dr. Elliott.


A Sympathetic Physician

Dr. Mabel Elliott of Benton Harbor, MI, was a physician with the American Women’s Hospitals organization. She sailed to Turkey in February 1919, shortly after the Armistic, on loan to Near East Relief from AWH. Dr. Elliott began her new practice in a Near East Relief rescue home in Scutari, a suburb of Constantinople. The rescue home was the temporary residence of 150 girls and women who had been liberated from Turkish homes. These young women made a profound impression on Dr. Elliott. She praised their culture and education, noting that many of them were fluent in French and English as well as Armenian. Most of the women were graduates of American institutions like Robert College.

Dr. Elliott provided medical care to the young women, but she also offered something even more important: Elliott was the first person to whom many of these young women told their harrowing tales of human trafficking, loss, and survival. In an era when the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder did not exist, Elliott attempted to offer some solace by listening.

In April 1919, Dr. Elliott transferred to Marash to direct Near East Relief’s medical unit in the Cilicia region. She inherited an old German hospital that had been abandoned after the Armistice, and a devoted local staff. Elliott made the long trip to the isolated city of Marash in a box car on the Baghdad Railway. She stopped in Konia, where she visited Near East Relief worker Emma Cushman, who was running a large orphanage on her own. Elliott marveled at Cushman’s ability to “do the work of seven men” in a war zone. Elliott arrived in Marash after a brief sojourn in Aleppo, where she gathered supplies for her new hospital.

Survival in Marash

Dr. Elliott wasted no time converting the abandoned hospital into a modern medical facility. Dr. Elliott became very close to her staff, which included Armenian and American nurses and an Armenian doctor. The hospital staff also distributed food and blankets to the many refugees arriving in Marash. The hospital was the only medical facility in the region, and people would walk on mountain paths for an entire day to reach it. As with all Near East Relief facilities, Dr. Elliott treated all patients regardless of their background. Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, Kurds, and Turks found treatment within the walls of Dr. Elliott’s hospital.

Elliott’s comparative peace was short-lived. The Turkish Nationalist army attacked Marash in January 1920. Dr. Elliott and her staff struggled to keep the hospital running during the three-week siege. They moved the patients from beds to the floor to protect them from stray gunfire. The French army, which had occupied Cilicia with the Allies’ permission, ultimately retreated, leaving the Armenians of Marash exposed to new massacres.

Dr. Elliott, her staff, and 5,000 refugees fled Marash on foot in the wake of the retreating French army. They traveled for three days in blizzard conditions over harsh, mountainous terrain. Dr. Elliott estimated that two-thirds of the party perished on route to safety in Islahai (now Islahiye). Elliott herself suffered frostbite, yet she rested in Islahai for just a few days. Dr. Elliott sail for the U.S. to recuperate from this ordeal — but only after finding new positions for her former staff in Adana, Aleppo, and Beirut.

This is the first in a two-part series on Dr. Mabel Elliott’s work with Near East Relief. Check back next week for the next installment!