Life and death on the ward: the case of Helen Prideaux

In the past and today, the art of treating disease has often been as dangerous to the patient as the doctor. In the 19th century, mortality rates amongst physicians and surgeons were significant – contact with infectious diseases or cuts received during surgery and dissection often had lethal results.

This ‘wastage’ in the medical profession was particularly concerning for early women doctors. With so few qualified medical women, the loss of just one or two practitioners had a serious impact on the number of working women doctors. The story of Frances Helen Prideaux (1858–1885) is just such a tragic one.

Black and white photograph of women studying in a laboratory
London school of medicine for women, 1899, Wellcome Collection.

We know little about Prideaux’s early life, but in 1878 she joined the London School of Medicine for Women to begin her medical education at the age of 20. Her achievements over the course of her study are extraordinary – including winning a University of London gold medal for her performance on her anatomy exam.

In 1884 she was awarded her MB and BS degrees with honours. She was subsequently appointed demonstrator of Physiology and Anatomy at the School. She went on to gain practical experience at hospitals across London, including Bethlem Asylum, before gaining an appointment at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s ‘New Hospital for Women’. At 27, she became the first woman to obtain a London hospital post in open competition with men when she became house surgeon at Paddington Green Children’s Hospital.

Black and white photograph of a large brick building
The New Hospital for Women, London. Wellcome Collection.

Prideaux took up this hard-won post on 2 November 1885, and died just 4 weeks later after contracting the contagious disease diphtheria, likely from one of her patients. In the late nineteenth century, diphtheria was the most significant cause of death amongst children. It is a bacterial infection often spread through the air which results in difficulty breathing and irreversible damage to the respiratory and circulatory systems. Effective immunisations against the deadly disease were not introduced in Britain until the 1940s.  

Colour illustration of tonsils and throat infected with diphtheria
Symptoms of diphtheria in The diseases of infancy and childhood. Henry Koplik, published 1902. Wellcome Collection.

If Helen Prideaux’s life was extraordinary, so was her ‘after life’. In a period in which women doctors were treated at best with suspicion and at worth with derision, the medical profession mourned Prideaux’s death very publically. She received a substantial obituary in the British Medical Journal which called her the ‘most brilliant and widely known’ graduate of the London School of Medicine for Women. Her death was reported as far away as India in the magazine of the National Indian Association in Aid of Social Progress. A colleague wrote to her mother describing her death as ‘about the saddest thing I can remember. There is not one of the students who will ever take Miss Prideaux’s place’.

Of particular interest is the reaction of prominent Victorian physician Sir William Withey Gull who endowed a scholarship at the University of London in Prideaux’s memory. In a speech at the Medical Society, he declared that through her achievements ‘vindicat[ing] the right of women to take the highest position in a difficult and intellectual profession.’ He had originally opposed women entering medical schools, but seeing Prideaux’s performance at University of London had changed his mind. Given that Gull was a significant figure in the medical world in this period, undoubtedly his speech may have given his colleagues pause for thought.

The resounding praise Prideaux received was no doubt well deserved, although it is important to critically consider the language in which it is presented. In her BMJ obituary, the editor declared that she was ‘above all things womanly’. They also make note of her ‘appearance and manners’, as well as her ‘modesty’ and commitment to ‘a woman’s life and duty’. In these memorials, Prideaux is presented as the pinnacle of Victorian womanly-ness, who also happened to be a qualified doctor. Nevertheless, it is possible to see a change in the way the profession was thinking about medical women – less as oddities and more as comrades. That Prideaux could be both womanly and an exceptional surgeon marked a change in thinking.

Kristin Hussey, curator

The exhibition This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine opened on 19 September 2018 and runs until 18 January 2019.

Kristin Hussey ,

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