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THEY DARED TO BE DOCTORS
Toni mount

October 2016


On 21 October the historian Toni Mount gave a brilliant talk on 'They dared to be Doctors', women in the nineteenth century who were determined to practice medicine despite the many obstacles in their way. Women could become nurses and midwifes, but it was thought they could not cope with the rigours of a medical education, and medical schools were closed to them.

The first of Toni Mount's heroes was, unexpectedly, James Barry (c. 1795-1865), who studied medicine at Edinburgh and London, and joined the British army as a junior medical officer in 1813. Doctor Barry was posted to Cape Town and appointed physician to the governor's household. In South Africa he performed the first successful caesarean delivery, when both the mother and the baby survived. Later postings included Jamaica, St. Helen's, and the Crimea, where he rebuked Florence Nightingale for neglect of hygiene (a life-long interest, along with quarantine). Eventually Barry became inspector general of all military hospitals. It was only on his death in 1865 that it was discovered that the doctor was in fact a woman. Barry's medical and military career had defied the establishment, and the military buried her as a man and sealed the official records for nearly a century.

The first woman doctor to obtain a medical education without Barry's subterfuge was Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) of Bristol, who emigrated to Ohio with her family in 1832. She was at boarding school when her father died, followed a few years later by her mother, who might have survived had not modesty prevented her from consulting a male physician. Her mother's death inspired Elizabeth to become a doctor for women, but the only medical school that would consider her was at Geneva, in upstate New York, and even there she was only enrolled when the students, asked if they would agree to a female classmate, voted to accept her. She graduated in 1849, top of the class, the first woman (apart from Barry) to qualify as a doctor, but no hospital wanted her. She returned to Europe to study surgery in Paris where she had to pretend to be a student of midwifery. Unfortunately she caught an eye infection, and limited vision put an end to her aspirations to be a surgeon. Back in London, at Bart's, she was employed only to take notes on the patients. Returning to America she established a dispensary which later was to become the New York Infirmary for Women. She died in Hastings in 1910.

Elizabeth Garrett (afterwards Mrs. Anderson, 1836-1917) was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and maltster at Aldeburgh. She attended a boarding school at Blackheath with Emily Davies, afterwards founder of Girton College. Her younger sister was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the campaigner for women's suffrage. Elizabeth's own contribution to the emerging women's movement, inspired by a lecture by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1859, was to promote the rights of women to study medicine. She had been denied admission to the medical schools of St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and London University, but discovered that completing the course of studies and examination of the Society of Apothecaries would entitle her to be entered on the medical register, and she qualified in 1865. With her father's financial support she set up a practice in the fashionable neighbourhood of Upper Berkeley Street, where she also treated poor female patients three afternoons a week. The next year she established the St. Mary's Dispensary for Women and Children, subsequently the New Hospital, in Marylebone Road. Thanks in great measure to Elizabeth's pioneering efforts British examining bodies gradually opened their medical examinations to women students, following the example of the Sorbonne in 1868 and other continental universities. From 1883 to 1902 Elizabeth was dean of the London School of Medicine for Women which was associated with the Royal Free Hospital and has since merged with University College Hospital Medical School.



 

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