'All my best men are women'

Photo: Illustrative image for the ''All my best men are women'' page
The role of women at the Mothers'
By Claudia Jessop

In the inter-war period the Mothers’ Hospital was at the vanguard of research and development in obstetrics, neo-natal care and the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, notably syphilis.  What is particularly interesting is that during this period the entire medical staff of the hospital consisted of women. The Mothers’ was a place where some of the foremost women in medicine at the time practiced, and conducted often ground-breaking research. The poverty and harsh social conditions of much of the hospital’s clientele afforded good opportunities to study the effects of poor nutrition and resultant pernicious anaemia, and sexual infection.

With recently published statistics indicating record numbers of women practicing medicine in this country it is difficult to evoke the difficulties and obstructions women faced in the first half of the 20th century, in qualifying and practicing as doctors. There was widespread prejudice against women entering any of the professions, and in many quarters against their receiving any higher education – and nowhere was this more pronounced and often vitriolic than in the world of medicine. A medical career was considered by the male establishment to be far too physically arduous and intellectually rigorous for any woman’s capabilities – and generally, an unseemly thing for any lady to wish to embark upon. Women were too temperamental and emotional to be capable of the dispassionate judgements the practice of medicine would demand of them. Since the practice of medicine was completely at odds with the ‘nature’ of women, it followed that any woman who undertook it would become ‘unnatural’, and a kind of masculinised androgyne, hardly really a woman at all any longer. You simply couldn’t, in the eyes of these male doctors, be both a proper woman and a proper doctor. The idea was common that the practice of any profession would interfere with a woman’s fertility. All kinds of quasi-medical theories were propounded during this period, as arguments against women’s participation in all kinds of higher education – all the more bizarre when you consider that these were often expressed by highly educated men in the scientific community, they included the idea that too much study would cause a woman’s womb to atrophy.

These prejudices, often furiously expressed, were enshrined in the regulations of the most important medical institutions. Women were barred from training at the major hospitals, including, most significantly for those with an interest in paediatrics, Great Ormond Street (its founder, Charles West, was one of the most passionate opponents of women in medicine). The British Paediatric Association was closed to women until 1945 (by which time at least one of the doctors described in the "Alumni" section of this website, Helen Mackay, had already been conducting very important and influential paediatric research for almost three decades). Well into the 1930s, during which the Mothers’ was flourishing in the hands of its all-women medical team, it was still common for job advertisements in the British Medical Journal to specify that women need not apply.

In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Helen Mackay was then a student at the London School of Medicine for Women at the Royal Free Hospital. Apparently unmoved by Curie’s achievements, Sir Henry Butlin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, delivered a lecture to Mackay’s cohort of students in which he stated unequivocally that he believed women to be unsuited to conducting medical research. An indication of how slow attitudes were to change is the way in which 30 years later, in 1941, Sir Robert Hutchison, President of the Royal College of Physicians, addressed students and graduates at the same women’s medical school. One can only speculate as to their feelings on hearing his view that “medical women make excellent wives, while their qualification is always a second string to their bow.” Against this background, the achievements of these female doctors are all the more impressive.

It is no coincidence that the fields of paediatrics and neo-natal medicine were chosen by a disproportionate number of trailblazing medical women – these were emerging specialisms at the time, and their relative lack of long traditions meant that they were less attractive to male doctors and thus afforded opportunities to women not available in other branches of medicine. Such women were often, according to David Stevensin his article Pride, Prejudice and Paediatrics: Women Peadiatricians in England Before 1950 (Archives of Disease in Childhood, October 2006, 91 [10], pp. 866-870) “taking up work that was not met by men.” These were, to a degree, ‘Cinderella specialisms’, with somewhat more permeable boundaries for women. It is tempting to wonder whether solidarity between women, so that women doctors concerned themselves with the problems particular to women patients, was also a factor in where they chose to direct their energies. And all-women hospitals set up by women, like the Mothers’, were crucial to the development of medical women’s careers.

Most of these women came from privileged backgrounds, utterly different from those of the mainly poor and underprivileged women they cared for at the Mothers’. Many gave up the chance of marriage and family life in order to pursue their careers. A study of these careers builds up a picture of a group of truly exceptional women – brilliant, dedicated, idiosyncratic, determined and socially if not politically radical. For periods often running into decades, they committed themselves completely to providing the highest standard of obstetric and neonatal care to some of the most disadvantaged mothers and babies. They made the Mothers’ the unique hospital it was, and careers like theirs changed the medical profession and its openness to women forever. A look at the hospital between the wars shows several of them in their heydays.  Go to the "Alumni" pages of this website to read about two of them, Dr Helen Mackay and Lady Florence Barrett.

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 23/03/2010.

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