THEY DARED TO BE DOCTORS
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.