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How women have battled for centuries to become medical professionals

a photo of a cabinet of bottle with a leather bound book sitting on a table

Medicine chest, 19th century with Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1895), photography by John Chase. © Royal College of Physicians

England and Wales’ oldest medical college, the Royal College of Physicians, marks its 500th anniversary with a major new exhibition taking a hard look at female participation in the medical professions

From Female apothecaries, herbalists, writers of medicinal recipes, midwives and of course doctors, women have contributed to the world of medicine for centuries. But it has been a hard path to follow, and their roles have often been purposely obscured, blocked and they have even been prosecuted for trying to enter this traditionally male dominated profession.

The Royal College of Physicians, whose own historical role in the patrician attitude of the profession is admitted in this exhibition, is marking this struggle via a fascinating haul of ephemera that invites the visitor to try and identify the UK’s first female doctor in a kind of historical cold case, littered with bygone evidence of subjugation, derision and obstruction.

From the Elizabethan period, we learn that Doctor Alice Leevers was put on trial and punished on ‘several occasions’ for illegally practising medicine, as recorded in a section of the Royal College of Physicians’ own annals.

Though other women were imprisoned for ‘impersonating’ doctors, Leevers was finally allowed to go about her business in peace following the intervention of the most senior officer in the Royal Household, the Lord Chamberlain, in 1586, which raises the intriguing possibility that Queen Elizabeth I may have known of the case.

a photo of a hand written manuscript

Detail from Record of Deeds indicating existence of female doctors, 13th century Leominster. © British Library

a written document in English

Agnodice, the woman physician, advertisement, 1680s © The British Library

a photo of an old text laden advertisement for an elixir

Daffy’s Elixir bottle and advertisement, 18th century. © Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

Leevers’ story emerges from an impressive range of rare and often personal objects, from medieval records to medical equipment, letters and portraits, that together entice visitors to search for Britain’s earliest female clinicians.

Two candidates for this hard-fought accolade come from 13th century Leominster where a charter points to the existence of a set of medical siblings: one brother and his two sisters, the women doctors Solicita and Matilda.

“it’s crucial that the Royal College of Physicians reflects critically on its own past of half a millennium representing physicians”

Yet the ‘Vexed Question’ of Women in Medicine, which gives this exhibition its name, persisted and several centuries later in the Victorian period, a progressive male medical student lamented the physical violence with which some of his peers reacted to the idea of women training to be doctors.

Clearly, the medical profession was, and still is, a male dominated world, but it’s refreshing that one of the erstwhile bastions of this masculine domination is prepared to uncover some home truths.

“In the year of our 500th anniversary, I think it’s crucial that the Royal College of Physicians reflects critically on its own past of half a millennium representing physicians,” reflects RCP Museum Curator Kristin Hussey.

“The story of women in the medical profession is one of these challenging stories. 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.”

a photo of a pair of hands opening an old book above a pestle and mortar and jug

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

a woodcut showing woman in Seventeenth century dress

Elizabeth Countess of Kent from A Choice Manuall of Rare Conceits 1653 © Royal College of Physicians

a print showing a figure divided by a vertical line, one half (left) representing a man, the other a woman.

A man-mid-wife. A belated protest against the male ‘accoucheur’ as a danger to female modesty and virtue. The controversy dates from the career of Peter Chamberlen (d. 1631) 1793 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Through the Elizabethan period into the 17th century an array of fascinating artefacts and their former owners emerge. Medical recipe books by, amongst others, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent and the mysteriously named ‘Madame Pyne’, jostle for the viewer’s attention with an advertisement from the 1680s for the services and products of ‘Agnodice: the woman physician’.

Many women publicised their healing prowess at this time, but few were as bold as Agnodice in openly declaring themselves a doctor.

“plenty of historical evidence here of patriarchy and prejudice protecting the interests of male practitioners in the medical profession”

But the themes and stories are consistent; whether it be the threat of imprisonment in 1518 or the difficulties of combining caring responsibilities with work and discriminatory pay practices in 2018. Hussey says, she hopes the exhibition can work as a kind of “origin story” for women in medicine now, “showing how their predecessors have challenged the system throughout history”

“I hope also we can bring attention to the important work the RCP is doing today,” she adds, “led by Professor Dame Jane Dacre, on the NHS gender pay gap and improving opportunities for women doctors.”

If Dacre needed it, she will find plenty of historical evidence here of male dominance and prejudice protecting the interests of men in the medical profession.

Early evidence of the systematic exclusion of women comes in an act of parliament in 1511, which casts women amongst the ‘great multitude of ignorant persons’ that illegally carried out ‘the Science and Cunning of Physick and Surgery’

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

a sepia photo of a woman in Victorian dress

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 19th century. © London Metropolitan Archives (City of London).

an assemblage of letters and an old photograph on a table

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

Despite these obstacles, the displays demonstrate that women were increasingly successful in entering the medical sphere, though often in exceptional circumstances.

Dr James Barry, who rose to be one of the British Army’s most senior medical officers, 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 Barry’s sex assigned at birth caused a scandal, and raises questions as to how many others took a similar route into medicine in the past.

“The stories of so many female pioneers – some household names, others largely forgotten – are truly inspiring,” says the exhibition curator Briony Hudson, who admits that these same stories often “provoke feelings of frustration”.

“Time and again through history, remarkable and empowered women have faced obstacles, opposition and outright hostility as they attempted to bring healing, care and medical knowledge to their communities and the wider world.”

That said, the majority of women found less extreme means than Dr James Barry of pursuing their ambitions. Many took a more traditional route endorsed by their male superiors – working in the field of midwifery or as apothecaries as makers, dispensers and very occasionally prescribers of medicines.

Again a range of objects, including an 18th century medicine bottle that once contained ‘Daffy’s Elixir’, a ‘cure-all’ first invented by Anthony Daffy, then made and sold by generations of women from the same family, help to tell this story.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is widely thought of as the first woman to officially qualify as a doctor in Britain, and her path began by passing the exams of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, as her original certificate of 1865 attests.

Garrett Anderson eventually obtained an MD from the University of Paris and joined the company of Elizabeth Blackwell the Anglo-American clinician who was the first woman included on the Medical Register in 1859, a decade after she qualified in the United States.

a black and white photo of two Suffragettes holding a banner with the word medicine across it

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies Suffrage procession to the Royal Albert Hall on 13 June 1908 © The Women’s Library at the LSE

a photo of a silk handkerchief embroidered with names

Handkerchief embroidered by suffragette inmates at Holloway Prison, 1912 © Sussex Archaeology Society

This pattern of British women qualifying overseas continued throughout the Victorian era as domestic medical schools continued to refuse them admittance. The life of Sophia Jex Blake – represented by a portrait from the collections of the Royal Free Hospital – is yet another example, as 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.

A never previously displayed letter from Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of Elizabeth) to her employers reveals the wider pressures that women in Edwardian society were under when it warns that she may face arrest and imprisonment on account of her suffragette activities. A handkerchief embroidered by suffragette inmates at Holloway Prison in 1912 carries the signatures of Dr Alice Kerr, a GP, whose crime was to participate in a window smashing demonstration at Harrods, alongside Alice Ede and Louisa Garrett Anderson.

Audio testimonies, many captured by the Royal College of Physicians’ ongoing oral history project, describe the experiences of the women who followed the Garret Anderson – into the 20th century and an overhaul of the college’s portrait collection of the eminent male medics of the last 500 has, for the duration of the exhibition, made way for a collection of images of female doctors and medical pioneers.

2018 marks many relevant milestones including Vote100, NHS70, the centenary of the end of the First World War, and the first year in which men and women are expected to be represented in the medical profession in equal numbers, which makes this five centuries old tale chime with ongoing debates around gender and the wider role of women within society today.

“These recurring themes,” says Hudson, “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.”

a photograph of a pair of forceps resting on a drawing of a baby being extracted using forceps

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

‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine runs at the Royal College of Physicians Museum from 19 September 2018 to 18 January 2019.


Royal College of Physicians

London, Greater London

The Royal College of Physicians is the oldest medical college in England. Since our foundation by royal charter of Henry VIII in 1518, the RCP has built up magnificent collections of books, manuscripts, portraits, silver, and medical artefacts. Visit us to experience extraordinary historical and ceremonial spaces set inside a…

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