This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine

This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine  


Women apothecaries, herbalists, writers of recipes, midwives - and of course physicians - have worked within a male-dominated world for centuries.Their roles have always provoked debate, which still continues today. During the infamous Surgeons Hall Riot a male medical student bemoaned the ‘vexed question’ of women in the medical professions. 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? This exhibit explored the intriguing stories and battles of famous and forgotten female figures from more than half a millennium of medical practice. 

The exhibition also explored the histories of well-known pioneers and uncovered previously hidden medical women.  Featuring RCP President Jane Dacre's newly-commissioned portrait alongside Elizabeth Garrett's qualifying certificate, a 17th century handwritten recipe book and 20th century oral histories, visitors took a journey through the history of female doctors and the evolving attitudes toward them over the past 500 years of the RCP’s existence. 

Professor Dame Jane Dacre portrait by Paul Benney, 2018
Suffragettes holding medicine banner photo credit LSE Women's Library Collection

The exhibit used rarely seen and newly discovered evidence, revealing some of Britain’s earliest female clinicians. Among the items, a 14th century charter asserted the existence of a set of medical siblings: one brother and his two sisters, the women doctors Solicita and Matilda. Alice Leevers also featured in the exhibit, a woman who was tried and punished on several occasions for illegally practising medicine. Although other women were imprisoned for ‘impersonating’ doctors, Alice was finally allowed to go about her business in peace following the intervention of the Lord Chamberlain in 1586. 

The 17th century yielded an array of fascinating figures and artefacts. Medical recipe books by Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent and the mysteriously named ‘Madame Pyne’, jostled for the viewer’s attention with the 1680s advertisement for the services and products of ‘Agondice: the woman physician’. Many women publicised their healing prowess at this time, however few were as bold as Agondice in openly declaring themselves a doctor. 

Though some women were, through a combination of such boldness, skill and good fortune able to continue in their chosen profession, others were not. A legal bond on display in the exhibit, dated 24 February 1709 records that Elizabeth Pratt agreed to immediately cease all medical practice and take down a sign for her services. In this case the authorities had good cause: Elizabeth had administered Mary Morecock ‘crude mercury’ for a sore throat, resulting in the patient’s death.

The clamour for women to be allowed to enter the medical professions on a formal basis grew significantly during the 19th century. With this, controversy ensued and the authorities often acted – as they had done throughout time - on the basis of prevailing prejudice and the protection of the interests of male clinicians. 

The first evidence of the systematic exclusion of women from the medical profession came in an Act of Parliament from 1511, reproduced courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives. It featured women amongst the ‘great multitude of ignorant persons’ that illegally carried out ‘the Science and Cunning of Physick and Surgery’.

Somewhat shockingly, the language used to exclude women on the cusp of the 20th century was little better. In debating an unsuccessful petition to allow women membership of the Royal College of Physicians in 1895, opposing fellows of the College stated that allowing women a medical education was ‘an experiment which another generation may show to be a mistake’.

Despite these obstacles and objections, the exhibition demonstrated that women were increasingly successful in entering the medical sphere, though often in exceptional circumstances. Dr James Barry, pictured below, rose to become one of the British Army’s most senior medical officers. However, Barry was born Margaret Anne Bulkley and only began living as a man in later teenage years, possibly in order to secure a career in medicine. The discovery - after death - of Barry’s sex assigned at birth caused a scandal, and raised questions as to how many others took a similar route into medicine in the past. 

The majority of women found less extreme means of pursuing their ambitions. Many worked in the field of midwifery or as apothecaries: at this time makers, dispensers and (occasionally) prescribers of medicines. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain and did so by passing the exams of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. In doing so, she followed in a proud tradition of women involved in the production and distribution of medicines. This history was revealed through a range of objects that sat on display, including an 18th century medicine bottle that once contained ‘Daffy’s Elixir’, a ‘cure-all’ invented by Anthony Daffy, then made and sold by generations of women from the same family. 

Suffragette procession showing a delegation of women doctors, 1910 from the LSE Women's Library Collection
Dr James Barry, born Margaret Anne Bulkley, only began living as a man from late teenage years, possibly in order to secure a career in medicine.

The suffragette movement was a heavy theme throughout the exhibit, which aimed to explore how women have pushed for change on their own terms. Key standouts include a letter from Louisa Garrett Anderson to her employers warning that she may face arrest and imprisonment on account of her suffragette activities. Another stand out exhibit item was the handkerchief signed by the survivors of hunger strikes at Holloway prison, including that of Liverpudlian doctor Alice Ker. Also among the exhibit displays was an impressive portrait loan from the imperial war museum - An Operation at Endell Street Hospital by Frances Dodd, showed woman doctors and surgeons operating in the First World War. 

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