A woman ahead of her time: Dame Hilda Lloyd

As part of our season of posts about women’s history, today we welcome Peter Basham, curator at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, writing about the RCOG’s first woman president, Hilda Lloyd (1891–1982).

Aside from, in 1949, becoming the first woman president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Hilda Lloyd (1891–1982) was a genuine pioneer in her work. In launching obstetrical flying squads in the poorer areas of 1930s Birmingham, her home city, she can be credited for saving countless lives.

Lloyd had witnessed the effects of poverty on the women she encountered in her work, with STDs and dangerous illegal abortions only too common. The flying squads were carefully considered teams of an obstetrician, a midwife and a medical student, bringing equipment vital in dealing with blood loss and other complications from labour and amateur attempts at abortion.

A key tenet for Lloyd, throughout her career, was ensuring confidentiality for women in accessing health care. She fought to retain the independence of the Family Planning Association, of which she was a vice-president, from the NHS. Lloyd understood that social and relationship pressure could be extremely intimidating, and that women might not access health care resources if they thought that it would be discovered.

In addition to her work improving the health care of women, she was a proponent of encouraging women to enter the medical profession. She co-founded the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club, with Alice Bloomfield (1895–1977), a direct response to similar men-only gynaecological societies, and intended that it would encourage women into the field. She also encouraged women to continue their careers after becoming mothers – a radical stance for the time.

Oil painting of a white woman in a blue ceremonial robe
Dame Hilda Lloyd (1891–1982). Oil on canvas by Anthony Devas, 1951.

As president of the RCOG, Lloyd encouraged the establishment of midwifery boards in each region of the U.K. to ensure greater unity on standards of care provision. Her election as president actually marked the first occurrence of a woman at the head of any of the medical royal colleges.

The RCOG’s portrait of Dame Hilda (she gained the honour during her presidency in 1951), is by Anthony Devas (1911–1958). The artist was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and an Associate of the Royal Academy. He gained commissions to paint a number of prominent figures in the Arts, including John Gielgud, Laurie Lee and Peggy Ashcroft, as well as, a year before his premature death, that of a young Elizabeth II.

Current RCOG president Lesley Regan described Dame Hilda, one of her inspirations, as ‘a woman ahead of her time.’

Peter Basham, Curator, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

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

Katie Birkwood ,
rare books and special collections librarian

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