Women in Medicine: Celebrating the Women of RUMS

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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Photograph..{‘ ‘} Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

‘Women in Medicine’ was a photographic exhibition of historical and contemporary female icons in medicine, held late last year at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Medical institutions across the UK nominated a current female representative of their speciality, who in turn paid tribute to historical women who have inspired them. 

The Royal College of Physicians recently ran an exhibition celebrating internationally acclaimed women in medicine, many of whom graduated from UCL Medical School or one of its many iterations. Among the long list of honoured icons were Diana Beck, believed to be the first female neurosurgeon in the world, and Dame Josephine Barnes, the first female president of the British Medical Association. Did you know that the first female president of the Royal College of Physicians trained at UCLH? Margaret Turner-Warwick was a pioneering thoracic physician who died, sadly, just last August. She was described as “intellectually formidable, personally generous… leading the transformation of the treatment of lung disease … a shining example of excellence to the generations that follow her” by Dame Sally Davies, chief medical offer for England and chief medical officer for England and chief medical advisor to the UK government. Many other RUMS alumni were featured in the exhibition, such as Professor Jenny Higham, now principal of St. George’s Medical School, and Dr. Gillan Hanson, a trailblazer in the field of intensive care medicine. Jane Dacre, current president of the Royal College of Physicians (only the third female president in its venerable history), was also the director of UCL Medical School and is one of the Health Service Journal’s 100 most influential people in health.

One name that should be familiar to every UCL medical student is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female in Britain to formally qualify as both a physician and a surgeon. Growing up in late-Victorian Britain, she was encouraged by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women – still in existence today – to pursue a career in medicine. For Garrett, getting into medical school was the easy part. Less well-known are the struggles she faced as an unwelcome presence amongst the male students. Even though there were many other outstanding female students at the time, Garrett alone was able to qualify because of loopholes in the system. In fact, immediately after she qualified, the Society of Apothecaries ameneded its rules so that no other woman could follow the same path, preventing many female doctors-to-be from qualifying. It was only 21 years later that the new Medical Act allowed all eligible applicants, regardless of gender, to obtain a license to practice. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing at University College Hospital, founded by Garrett herself, is a testament to her fantastic contribution to women’s rights in medicine and society at large.

UCL Medical School has a proud history of encouraging women to study medicine. In 1877, the Royal Free Hospital allowed students from the London School of Medicine for Women – the first medical school in the UK to train female doctors – to complete their clinical studies there. The London School of Medicine for Women, along with the Royal Free Hospital and University College Hospital Medical School, eventually merged into the Royal Free and University College Medical School, the precursor to the UCL Medical School of the present. Just think: you’re studying at an institution whose predecessor was the first medical school in Britain to train women as doctors! You can still see the building at 33 Hunter Street, now the Hunter Street Health Centre of the UCL Institute of Neurology, only a stone’s throw from Great Ormond Street Hospital.

“The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing at University College Hospital, founded by Garrett herself, is a testament to her fantastic contribution to women’s rights in medicine and society at large.”

We have a particularly interesting track record of producing female anaesthetists. It started with Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, the first British woman to obtain a Master of Surgery and who served in the First World War. Aldrich-Blake was also the first woman to hold the positions of surgical registrar, consultant anaesthetist and lecturer of anaesthetics. Her devotion to medical education led to her become the dean of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1914. You can see her statue at Tavistock Square, a memorial to her pioneering work. She also worked at the Royal Free Hospital, so remember that the next time you walk along those corridors!

Another towering figure in this field is Dr. Katharine Lloyd-Williams, who was a highly respected anaesthetist at the Royal Free Hospital. She oversaw the transformation of the London School of Medicine for Women into the Royal Free Medical School, the first co-educational medical school in the UK. Aside from being an accomplished violinist, she also served as president of the Anaesthetics section of the Royal Society of Medicine and published many books on anaesthesia. Her legacy has inspired the current crop of female anaesthetists, one of whom is Ramani Moonesinghe, a consultant in Anaesthetics and Critical Care Medicine at UCH.

Moonesinghe, who graduated from UCL Medical School twenty years ago, is also a council member on the Royal College of Anaesthetics and a board member of the National Institute for Academic Anaesthesia. She is dedicated to researching risk prediction in surgery and evaluating post-operative outcome measures; she teaches doctoral students in her capacity as Honorary Senior Lecturer in Anaesthesia.

The Women in Medicine Project is a much-needed celebration of remarkable female doctors and the women who had inspired them. However, it is evident that the state of gender equality in medicine still leaves much to be desired. Despite what the general figures suggest, women are still under-represented in surgery and medical specialties such as anaesthetics, ophthalmology and gastroenterology. Every step should be taken to widen access to these specialties by introducing more flexible working patterns. The decision to raise a family should not affect women’s chances of landing a job in any specialty. While there are further issues to address in the struggle to empower women in medicine, a time when doctors are judged on merit and achievement, rather than by their gender, does not seem too far off. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would have settled for nothing less.

By Tharani Ahillan