Object lessons: how do we represent today's women doctors?

As the project curator working on our next exhibition ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine, I have a fantastic job. The exhibition’s aim is to tell the long story of women in medicine, not just the well-known pioneers such as Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917), but women who were practising medicine both centuries earlier and much more recently.

We want to reveal the ‘hidden histories’ of women apothecaries running their own businesses, women granted a church licence to practise medicine and surgery, and women taking opportunities presented by wartime to play roles previously unacceptable to society as a whole. Our aim is also to consider the wider context: why was it okay to take over from your late husband, but not to set up in business on your own? What role was a male physician expected to play in a family? Why have some medical specialties been more acceptable for women to pursue than others? After all, the story is one of gender relations rather than women medical practitioners in isolation.

Exhibition promotion image showing a detail from an oil painting of Dorothy Hare, with the text 'Royal College of Physicians, 'This vexed question': 500 years of women in medicine, 19 Sept 2018 - 18 Jan 2019'
The exhibition 'This vexed question' opens on 19 September 2018

There are fascinating collections held by the RCP that illuminate these multiple histories: 17th century handwritten recipe books, rare books ranging from midwifery to botanical illustration, portraits, silver, delftware and oral history interviews. But in addition to drawing on the in-house treasures, I have been looking at other institutions to see what we might borrow to enhance the histories that the RCP’s material can tell. My research journey has taken me to Lambeth Palace Archives to look at 17th century medical licensing, the Florence Nightingale Museum for wartime nursing, the Parliamentary Archives to investigate a 1511 Act outlawing women doctors, the museum at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to explore the gendered turf wars in midwifery, and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum for medicines that were developed by women and advertising that plays on the mother as primary carer. Women vets, surgeons and medical scientists are also research avenues that we’re investigating.

The RCP’s oral history collection includes the memories of women who pioneered family planning services in the 1920s, established new medical specialties and fought for, fundraised for and set up much needed new departments. We have interviewed people who have educated the public about new diseases and risen to the top in medical journalism. Participants such as Kay Davies are leading teams working right at the cutting edge of genetic research. The recordings are full of stories of women’s highly impressive achievements in the medical field. Perhaps more importantly, though, they also reflect the relentlessly hard work that women physicians put in, alongside their colleagues, running clinics, conducting ward rounds, dealing with emergencies and teaching new generations of medical practitioners, that is so vital in keeping our much loved and valued NHS running.

The recordings give us a sense, not so much of the way that women in medicine were passively viewed, but of how female practitioners actively changed the established view of what they could achieve through sheer hard work and example. RCP president Jane Dacre sums up this mentality well when she recalls a meeting with a tutor in her junior doctor days:

I was told by a post-graduate tutor when I was quite pregnant, ‘you can’t have it all. You have got to either have children, or you can focus on your work, it’s either one or the other.’ And I was outraged. So comments like that just spurred me on, I just thought, ‘Right, I’m going to show you!’

Portrait in oils showing a white woman with grey hair wearing a black and gold gown and holding a silver staff in her right hand.
Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick. Oil on canvas by David Poole, 1992.

Many other interviews reflect this steely determination, from both female practitioners and the many male colleagues who did support them, not to simply accept the status quo, but to push boundaries, get on with the job, and demonstrate the huge contributions that women can make to the medical profession.

The title of the exhibition, ‘this vexed question’, comes from a letter written by a male medical student in 1870 describing the attempt by seven women, led by Sophia Jex-Blake, to train as doctors at Edinburgh University. In the exhibition as a whole, we want to show that the place of women in medicine has been continually debated throughout the five centuries we’re presenting, and that it remains a ‘vexed question’ in some areas today. But the phrase is also resonant for the team working on the exhibition. How are we going to tell the story of women in all of the many medical roles they have played across five centuries? And how are we going to do it in a relatively small exhibition space in a visually engaging way? The very nature of the topic means that we have to work hard to find material. In the hundreds of photographs of RCP Fellows, there are very few women’s faces, and in the hundreds of pages of RCP Annals, there are very few women’s names. But this is a challenge to relish as the sense of achievement in uncovering these hidden histories is great, and the ability to shed fresh light on existing stories is what the exhibition is aiming to achieve.

What object would you choose?

An additional challenge that we’ve been grappling with in recent weeks is how to bring the story and the exhibition right up to date to include the full five centuries of the RCP’s existence. In some respects, making curatorial choices about historical women working in medicine is easier because the potential display material is more limited. To represent the experiences of women working as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and midwives today – and to set this within a wider context of the medical workforce as a whole and gender issues more broadly – is perhaps more difficult.

We’ve found ourselves asking ‘If you had to choose one object to represent women doctors today, what would you choose?’  We’ve been toying with the idea of a diary or calendar to illustrate how family and work life is negotiated and planned, or a pager to show that, whatever your gender, the patients’ needs remain paramount.  So we thought we would extend the question out to you – women in medicine! If you were to select an object for display, what would represent your personal experience? This could be anything – your favourite stethoscope, a diary, your go-to outfit for work, a special memento or good luck charm. 

Photograph of a doctors' stethoscope with one earbud missing, mounted in a museum display.
Stethoscope displayed at National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

As an example, National Museums Scotland have recently displayed a stethoscope donated by a woman doctor. She used it during the second year of her residency, and it’s missing an earbud because her daughter used it to play with. She kept it as a memento of her training and also of her daughter's childhood. This is an excellent example of an object which tells a story about someone’s personal experience.

But of course there is no right answer: asking 100 practising physicians, men and women, would probably get close to 100 answers.  But we are still keen to ask the question!  If you have thoughts or an item you would lend or donate to be put on display in the exhibition which you think represents what it means to be a woman doctor today, we would be really pleased to hear from you. You can get in touch by emailing: history@rcplondon.ac.uk

‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine opens on 19 September 2018 and runs until 18 January 2019. 

Written by Briony Hudson, with contributions from Sarah Lowry and Kristin Hussey, curator

Briony Hudson ,
Project curator
Sarah Lowry ,
Oral history project officer
Dr Kristin Hussey ,
Senior curator

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