By the mid 1960s, increasing numbers of women were going to medical school but, once qualified, women with children often found it difficult to find flexible posts where they could train as specialists and also raise their families. A survey carried out by the Medical Women’s Federation in 1965 showed 60 per cent of married women doctors with children, who had been qualified for less than five years, were not in professional posts.
Rosemary Rue (1928–2004), then a newly-appointed assistant senior administrative medical officer in Oxford, pioneered the idea of part-time training, persuading her local regional hospital board to establish the Married Women’s Training Scheme. The scheme was an outstanding success, was extended nationwide and, over the decades, has transformed the lives of thousands of women doctors.
Rue knew from personal experience the problems facing women doctors with children and the creativity and tenacity needed to continue and develop a medical career. While a student at the Royal Free Medical School, she met Roger Rue, a pilot, and, when in 1950 they decided to get married, she thought she ought to tell the female dean. She recalled: ‘I thought it was a normal courtesy … And her response was “Well, you can’t do that.”’ Rue was told – firmly – that she couldn’t be married and be a medical student. She left the medical school within a week and arranged to finish her studies at Oxford, qualifying and registering in November 1951, while pregnant with her first son, Randall.
She then faced another hurdle: in Oxford, everyone seemed to know she had just had a child and she was told it was impossible to have a baby and a house job. Eventually she found a post in geriatrics at the Cowley Road Hospital, on the outskirts of the city, but, as a ‘resident’ junior doctor, she was expected to live on site. Somehow, she managed to juggle her new baby and the job – setting up her family in a flat near the hospital and training her son to become nocturnal ‘… so that I could work during the day and play with the baby and feed him during the night.’ After three months, her precarious arrangement was discovered and she was instantly sacked.
With hospital work seemingly barred to her, she tried general practice, finding work as an assistant at Temple Cowley. She found, to some extent, general practice suited a toddler. On afternoon visits: ‘patients were extremely nice and they minded him or talked to him or some member of the family would talk to him or show him the farm or something while I saw the patient.’
But in early 1954 her career was interrupted when she caught polio – the last case recorded in the Oxford area. While recuperating and learning to live with reduced mobility, she realised she was pregnant with her second son, Rolf, and around the same time her marriage broke up. She went to live with her parents and eventually recovered enough to go back to general practice, this time in Hertfordshire, working with a GP who also had a disability.
When her sons were a little older, she moved into public health medicine and, in 1965, joined the Oxford Regional Hospital Board, where she was responsible for manpower. At this stage, the NHS was well-funded, new hospitals were being planned and a serious, national shortage of doctors, in particular specialists, was recognised.
Rue personally knew many married women doctors in Oxford who were frustrated by the lack of flexible training posts. She remembered: ‘it was almost impossible for them to leave their families and become fully resident in hospital (very fully in those days) for about 6 years to complete the approved programme of training and experience necessary to attain the permanent career post of consultant upon which the NHS was coming to be based.’ In effect, large numbers of women with children were dropping out of medicine.
Rue approached her Regional Hospital Board and they agreed to fund a pilot scheme of four posts. ‘My plan was to place a woman doctor with a consultant desperate for help and recognised by his College as a trainer waiting for a trainee. She would be employed on a part-time basis … at Clinical or Medical Assistant level … experience would be obtained and recorded so that a record of her postgraduate training would be built up over an extended period.’
By the end of the year, Rue had placed 40 women and had ‘a queue outside my office begging for more.’ She returned to the board, having overspent by a factor of ten but, in a reflection of those distant, well-funded times, they were delighted. By the end of the next year there were 100 women in post and a paper was published in The Lancet outlining the scheme.
The idea was adopted and promoted by the British Medical Association and the Medical Women’s Federation, and the scheme was quickly taken up in the wider Oxford area, then in the south-west Thames and Wessex regions, before eventually going nationwide as a flexible employment and postgraduate training scheme. The women started passing postgraduate exams for which the Royal Colleges agreed their training and experience made them eligible, and some were eventually appointed as consultants.
Rosemary Rue, who went on to become the regional medical officer of the Oxford Regional Health Authority and a co-founder of the Faculty of Community Health, had her own measure of the scheme’s success: ‘We analysed the results from time to time, and there was a time when among the women on the scheme there were exactly the same number of higher degrees and diplomas as babies born, which I always thought was a rather nice statistic. So it certainly demonstrated that the women were keeping up.’
Sarah Gillam, editor of Munk’s Roll
Rosemary Rue was chosen by Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead in the RCP’s 2017 Women in medicine project.
Dame Rosemary Rue interviewed by Dr Max Blythe in 1995 (Interview 2, Part 1). Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive.
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- Dame Rosemary Rue. The Independent 5 January 2005.
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- Oxford Brookes University/Royal College of Physicians of London. Dame Rosemary Rue DBE in interview with Dr Max Blythe. Medical sciences video archive collection 1995-1997 https://doi.org/10.24384/000010 accessed 24 September 2019.
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