Dr Laura Kelly on the history of women in medicine

Our Pretty Doctor
Our Pretty Doctor

Today, women make up the majority of entrants to British medical schools. However, in the nineteenth century, women faced a long struggle to become doctors. Arguments against women in practising medicine were based on beliefs about women’s physical, mental and emotional natures and the idea that medicine was not an appropriate career path. British male doctors who were worried about competition were instrumental in the attack on the women’s higher education movement in nineteenth-century Britain. Menstruation was commonly cited as a barrier for women who wished to attend university because it was thought to disrupt their thought and application every month. Opponents also argued that the female brain was less suited to the study of medicine while others questioned whether women were intelligent enough for medical study. Importantly, it was also believed that women’s work as doctors would endanger their roles as wives and mothers.

For supporters of women’s right to become doctors, it was women’s very natures that made them most suitable to work as doctors. They felt that there was a definite need for women doctors to treat women patients. It was claimed too that women patients found it easier to tell their problems to a female doctor and that women doctors were better qualified to treat women because they could empathise with problems specific to women. It was also believed that there was a need for women doctors in the missionary field.
From the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of women sought to become doctors. In 1858, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), a British born woman living in America, was accepted onto the Medical Register in Britain because she had a foreign degree. In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) also gained a medical qualification through a long and difficult route. She attended clinical classes in London hospitals, and after threatening legal action against the authorities who refused to let her sit the examination she acquired a licence from the Society of Apothecaries, the rules of which did not specifically exclude women. The society promptly closed this route to other women by refusing to examine any candidate who had not studied at a recognised medical school. Women who tried to gain access to medical school after Blackwell and Garrett Anderson faced even greater problems. In Britain, the campaign for women’s admission to medical education began at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 where Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1913) fought for the rights of women students to study medicine. Initially, the university refused to admit women so Jex-Blake organised a small group of women known as the ‘Edinburgh Seven’. Once admitted, the women were not allowed access to the university’s medical classes and were forced to organise their own separate classes with professors who were sympathetic. They were then refused admission to Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary for clinical practice and faced another long battle to gain admission there. Jex-Blake and her cohort also faced physical violence from male medical students. Finally, they were denied the right to graduate. These women then went abroad to take the medical licences of European universities which were more sympathetic towards women in medicine, such as Zurich and Bern. From 1877, British women could obtain degrees through the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland which played an important role in the registration of medical women in the late nineteenth century. From the late nineteenth century, British and Irish medical schools gradually opened their doors to women.
My research explores the experiences of the first generations of women medical students and doctors in Ireland.
Discussion questions for students:
1.    What does this cartoon tell us about attitudes towards women in the medical profession?
2.    What were the arguments for and against women entering medical profession in the nineteenth century?
3.    What were the different obstacles that women medical students and doctors in the nineteenth and early twentieth century might have faced?