This Vexed Question: 500 Years of Women in Medicine, RCP


Team member with The Byrth of mankynde by Eucharius Ro?sslin (1545) photography John Chase © Royal College of Physicians

Hope and healing are integral to our challenging perceptions about women active in the industry of medicine down the ages, as the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) at London, presents a new exhibition marking its 500th Anniversary.

This Vexed Question: 500 Years of Women in Medicine starts September 19, 2018 and ends January 18, 2019. It will explore the role of women over the last five centuries and beyond as it ‘aims to confound prevailing notions… and, set the record straight’.


Leonard Sowerby, The ladies dispensatory (1652), apothecary jar c18th century, photography by John Chase (c) Royal College of Physicians

Taking its title from the comments of a progressive Victorian male medical student, who lamented the physical violence with which some of his peers reacted to the ‘vexed question’ of women training to be doctors, this new show is sure to prove popular because of its links to the social issues of our day.

Revealing the intriguing stories and battles fought for more than half a millennium of medical practice, by famous and forgotten female figures, the display will include medieval records, medical equipment, letters and portraits, set alongside items never before seen publicly.

The displays will also lead those seeking to expand their knowledge of Britain’s earliest female clinicians on a hunt for the women highlighted, including many ‘frustratingly elusive individuals’ of which little is known, despite being recorded for posterity.

Two thirteenth century women doctors Solicita and Matilda are mentioned in dispatches; a charter dating from sometime after the year 1234. To be reproduced from originals at The British Library, it will reveal information about the existence of medical siblings: one brother and his two sisters.


Unknown artist, Britain, The Cholmondeley Ladies, c.1600–10, Oil paint on wood, courtesy the Tate, London

The Elizabethan Age under the guidance of Queen Elizabeth Age, was one of great progress and Alice Leevers, is a woman highlighted in the records of the Royal College of Physicians. Tried and punished, it would be the Lord Chamberlain himself in 1588 who would allow her to ‘go about her business’.

This has led historians to believe Alice may have enjoyed the favour of the Queen herself. Whatever the elusive truth, her seeming freedom poses just as many questions as those answered.


William Smellie’s forceps c1750 on loan from Royal College of Obstetricians with A Sett of anatomical tables (1752), photography by John Chase (c) Royal College of Physicians

Another woman Susan Lyon in 1631 was not so lucky. According to official records known as annals, she was caught making medicinal products and selling her wares to an unlicensed Dutch physician.

Discovered, she was then forbidden by a panel of the RCP from producing or selling medicaments. There were very few professional physicians (doctors) known at the time.

Susan, having been trained by her deceased apothecary husband to help him was eventually allowed to continue in business, but only as long as she married again and trained her new husband to head up the operation.

Early evidence of the systematic exclusion of women from the medical profession comes in an act of parliament from 1511 will be reproduced courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives. It features 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 allowing women a medical education was ‘an experiment which another generation may show to be a mistake’.

Copy Interior RCP London

Royal College of Physicians Museum: Interior courtesy RCP

Kristin Hussey, curator of the Royal College of Physicians Museum, said ‘…In this landmark year, a century since the Representation of the People Act and the end of the First World War, it’s an ideal time to highlight the struggles of women doctors, surgeons, nurses, apothecaries and midwives to gain equality and respect in the medical profession, historically dominated by men…In this special year, she also noted “It was important to us that this be an exhibition about the past and the present.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Portrait of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves (1876–1941) (attributed to), courtesy Royal Free Hospital

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, widely thought of as the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, did so by passing the exams of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Her original certificate of 1865 will occupy pride of place in the exhibition, showing how she followed in a proud tradition of women involved in the production and distribution of medicines.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson eventually obtained an MD, from the University of Paris, joining Elizabeth Blackwell the first Anglo-American woman clinician on the Medical Register in 1859, a decade after qualifying in the U.S.

A 1900 portrait of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, LSA, MD (9 June 1836 – 17 December 1917), the first Englishwoman co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female M.D. in France, and the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board and the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain, belongs to the Royal Free Hospital.

The pattern of women from Britain qualifying overseas continued well into the Victorian era as local domestic medical schools continued to refuse them admittance.

Photograph and letters of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, petition requesting Royal College of Physicians' admission of women members,  photography John Chase © Royal College of Physicians

Photograph and letters of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, petition requesting Royal College of Physicians’ admission of women members, photography John Chase © Royal College of Physicians

The life of Sophia Jex Blake – represented also by a portrait from the collections of the Royal Free Hospital – is yet another example. She gained her qualification from the University of Bern in 1877.

The three women eventually came together to establish the London School of Medicine for Women, opening in 1874 as the first institution of its kind in the world.

Later, as the Royal Free Hospital Medical School, it launched the careers of many female clinicians of the following generations.

Copy Interior RCP London 4

Royal College of Physicians Museum: Interior courtesy RCP

Briony Hudson, exhibition curator, ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine, said These recurring themes, and the ongoing debate around women’s position in medicine, makes this an exhibition as much about today as it is about the figures from the past and present who we are so pleased to be able to highlight and celebrate”

Being an English colony, women from Australia aspiring to be doctors during the nineteenth century, were also not admitted to university medical courses in Sydney or Melbourne. Australia’s first qualified doctor Emma Constance Stone (1856-1902) went overseas in 1884.

She completed her three-year degree at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, U.S.A and became the first woman to be registered as a doctor in Australia.

Honourable Healers,

Honourable Healers, Collage: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Jez Blake and Emma Constance Stone

Together with England’s Anderson and Blake, she is today the subject of a fascinating book Honourable Healers, written by Merrilyn Murnane (PGDip Arts (Classic & Arch) 2010, Grad Dip Health & Medical Law 1998, MBBS 1960), a renowned paediatrician.

Murnane gives an overview of their achievements, examining them side by side especially noting they were  all ‘driven by a desire to serve their communities, in particular disadvantaged women and children’ and ‘while they did not always agree with each other’s methods to achieve change, they did inspire each other both directly and indirectly’.

In 1888, Emma Constance Stone graduated M.D., Ch.M. with first-class honours from the University of Trinity College, Toronto, Canada, before heading to London where she worked with Mary Scharlieb at the New Hospital for Women and qualified as licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries.

RCP 4Her experience inspired her ambition to found a hospital ‘by women, for women’ in Melbourne. She returned in 1890 to become the first woman to register with the Medical Board of Victoria.

Gender identities will also be challenged by ‘This Vexed Question’ including an enlightening story about an ‘enigmatic photographic image of Dr James Barry, who rose to be one of the British Army’s most senior medical officers.

As it turns out Barry was born Margaret Anne Bulkley and only began living as a man from late teenage years, possibly in order to secure a career in medicine.

The discovery – after death – of the sex assigned at birth caused a scandal. Perhaps it also raises many questions as to how many others may have taken a similar route to achieve in the world of medicine before her time.

RCP 5This is only a brief outline of what will be another outstanding exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians Museum at London. There is so much more to discover in what is a fascinating ever expanding story.

As usual, running alongside this landmark and most fascinating show will be a series of special events endeavouring to answer ‘vexed’ questions of today.

It’s wonderful too, that all exhibitions are free. You just need to add them to your list if you live locally, or are visiting from overseas.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018

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