Exhibition: 'This vexed question': 500 years of women in medicine
9am - 5pm
Royal College of Physicians

Women apothecaries, herbalists, writers of recipes, midwives - and of course physicians - have worked within a male-dominated world for many centuries.  Their roles have always provoked debate, which continues today. One commentator in 1870 bemoaned the ‘vexed question’ of women in medicine. Should women be allowed to train as doctors? Were they physically and mentally capable? Was there space for them in the profession? How would their male colleagues react?

“Is there not a much better thing for women than to be ‘medical men’ and that is to be medical women? Has not the cart been put before the horse in this women’s medical movement?"

 Florence Nightingale, 1871

This exhibition explores the histories of well-known pioneers and uncovers previously hidden medical women.  Featuring RCP President Jane Dacre's newly-commissioned portrait alongside Elizabeth Garrett's qualifying certificate, and 17th century handwritten recipe books next to 20th century oral histories, visitors will be able to find out more about individual women doctors and the attitudes towards them over the 500 years of the RCP’s existence.

Marking milestones including Vote100, the centenary of the end of the First World War, and 2018 as the first year in which men and women are expected to enter the medical profession in equal numbers, the exhibition aims to raise interesting and challenging questions around gender and medicine which are still ‘vexing’ today.


Be part of the exhibition

What would you choose to represent women in medicine today? The curators of the exhibition are opening the final section to RCP fellows and members to propose objects that illustrate the reality of working in medicine in 2018. Email your ideas to – history@rcplondon.ac.uk.

What do you think? Do women in medicine still present a ‘vexed question’ today?


'It is high time that this unnatural and preposterous attempt... to establish a race of feminine doctors should be exploded'

 British Medical Journal, 1862




Visiting information

The exhibition will be open from 19 September 2018 – 18 January 2019, Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm and is free to visit. Pre-booking is not required, however groups larger than 6 people are required to pre-book a guided tour with museum staff.

Opening times may vary – check the RCP visiting page for closure days before your visit.


Exhibition tours

Guided tours of the exhibition are available to book for groups between 6-25 people, Monday to Friday 10am - 5pm subject to staff availability. Tour charges can vary depending on the content and duration which can be tailored to your group's interest. Student groups are usually free. We are now booking tours until January 2019. For tours enquiries, email history@rcplondon.ac.uk


Walking tours

Take a walking tour with Discover Medical London through Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury to discover the stories of female trailblazers who paved the way for today's medical women. Walking tours start at the Royal College of Physicians.

Thursday 20 September, 2pm

Thursday 18 October, 2pm

Tickets £12 per person. Book now via Discover Medical London


Public programme

This Vexed Question Museum Late

Thursday 4 October 2018 5.30pm - 8pm, curator tour 6pm

Free to attend

In celebration of the Royal College of Physicians’ 500th anniversary, RCP museum is opening late on the first Thursday of the month during 2018. Visit the free temporary exhibition 'This vexed question', discover our archive and rare books collections, priceless portraits and silver displayed throughout the building, take the new heritage trail examining the curious intersection of medicine, art and society, or a multimedia guided tour of the RCP's grade I listed building.

A curator-led tour of the exhibition 'This vexed question' will commence at 6pm for approximately 45 minutes.

Book a free ticket


Whispers from the archive: patronage and prejudice

Thursday 1 November 2018, 6-8.30pm

Free to attend

Drawing from the RCP's unique oral history archive, oral history project officer, Sarah Lowry takes draws out some of the fascinating stories of interviewees in the oral history series. The event will include a tour of the exhibition 'This vexed question' with curator, Briony Hudson.

More information to be announced autumn 2018.


This vexed question: In conversation

Monday 12 November 2018 6-9pm

Ticketed event

More information to be announced autumn 2018