Dr Alice Benham

Alice in 1890[1]
Dr Alice Marian Benham, 60, (1873-1939) was a physician and surgeon with her own practice in Chelsea, “widely known for her professional skill, her private and public philanthropy, and her warm-hearted and public spirited outlook.”[2] In 1916 and 1917 she served as a doctor in the War in Belgium and Russia. She was active in the St John Ambulance Brigade, and worked at the St Theresa Hostel, supporting the Church Army to which she was particularly devoted. Alice joined the BMA in 1908. She supported the British Federation of University Women, Crosby Hall, refugees, the National Society of Day Nurseries and the Chelsea Committee for Spanish Relief. Born in the first quarter of 1873 it is very likely that she had recently turned 60 by the time of the dinner.


Our draft plan set out on Claribel Spurling’s page (the possible convenor of this table) would see her between Nurse Lanktree (common medical interests) and Hélène Reynard, college warden.  But she would have been a good table partner for any of this group and perhaps closest with respect to professional interests with dental surgeon Eva Handley-Read. She had common interests with Claribel Spurling through Crosby Hall and with Alys Russell with respect to care for children (Alys also had links to Crosby Hall).


Perhaps just looking forward to a reflective evening in good company.


Alice was born in the first quarter of 1873, in Wigmore Street, London, the daughter of Mary Sophia Davis (1838-1906) and Clapham manufacturer/ironmonger John Benham (1830-1899). Her parents were married on 22nd February 1865 at the Baptist Chapel Bloomsbury and had six children, the eldest, Mary Maud Benham, (1866-1937) an artist/sculptor.

With her family on her parents’ silver wedding in Clapham

Alice is standing behind her mother, her artistic sister Mary leaning beside the bush on the right, her young brother Douglas in his sailor’s uniform seated right.

Alice trained at the London School of Medicine for Women, graduating in 1904 M.B., B.S. Lond, and M.D six years later. She was house-surgeon at the Children’s Hospital, Sheffield, medical officer at the Church Army Dispensary in Marylebone Road, and clinical assistant gynaecologist to out-patients at the Royal Free Hospital.

In 1907 she travelled to Bombay, sailing at the end of January on the Moldavia and returning late June on the Arabia.

Alice was one of several women doctors who went to the Front in 1915 to Belgium with the British Women’s Field Hospital, assisting with the evacuation of Antwerp hospital patients through Ghent and Ostend to England, and in 1916 to Russia to look after Polish refugees.

The monthly journal of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Jus Suffragi reported on 1st July 1916:

Last Saturday saw the departure of Dr Alice Benham of Chelsea (who has generously given her services to the N.U.W.S.S for three months) a pharmacist and three more nurses. Within the next fortnight the remaining doctors and nurses will leave for Russia[3]

The British Journal of Nursing reported in January 1917:

In December of 1915 the N.U.W.S.S., 3 Great Smith Street, London, S.W., appealed to its friends and supporters for £65,000 to send help to Russia for the sick and homeless refugee women and children. ……… Early in the summer the Units took over a hospital of fifteen beds at Stara Chelnoe, a district without a doctor, on a tributary of the Volga, where Dr. Alice Benham treated not only refugees, but peasants of many races and creeds, who crowded in daily from the surrounding districts. When she had to give up her voluntary service in September, Dr. Laura Forster took over the hospital, and she will carry it on until Russian medical help is available.[5]


Since Ostend she had been a close colleague Dr Laura Forster, one of the first Australian women doctors to go to the war in Belgium, and when Laura died of typhoid in 1917 in today’s Ukraine Alice wrote “it seems very tragic dying so far away from home”.1

Alice’s youngest brother Douglas, who had emigrated to Canada in 1912, returned to his homeland with his regiment in 1914 but he died at his Salisbury Plains army camp in December 1914.[6] Perhaps that personal loss helped to drive Alice to go to help at the Front. Alice was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.

Her practice was at 57 Oakley St, Chelsea, “where she found scope for fine work among women and children.[7] With the St John’s Ambulance Brigade she became lady divisional surgeon to the No. 10 Nursing Division.


Alice was most likely 60 at the time of the dinner. In 1938 she was honoured with the dignity of the Serving Sister of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. She died aged 66 on 5th June 1939, spared from witnessing yet another world war.[8] [9]


[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20303942.pdf?refreqid=search%3A13e3b9c8fc9dee9b6575ba58c973ece7

[2] Obituary, The British Medical Journal, 24.6.1939 p1308 accessed 30.7.2017 via Jstor

[3] Sybil Oldfield, International Woman Suffrage: November 1914-September 1916, Taylor & Francis, 2003 

[4] British Journal of Nursing, 20.1.1917  http://rcnarchive.rcn.org.uk/data/VOLUME058-1917/page050-volume58-20thjanuary1917.pdf

[5] The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War, The Conversation, 17.3.2015 accessed 5.2.2019

[6] The Kirkpatrick Family Archives, accessed 5.2.2019 

[7] Obituary, The British Medical Journal, 24.6.1939 p1308 accessed 30.7.2017 via Jstor

[8] Obituary Dr Alice Benham Chelsea News and Advertiser 9 June 1939

[9] Obituary, The British Medical Journal, 24.6.1939 p1308 accessed 30.7.2017 via Jstor

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