Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Victorian Woman Doctors

The Wellcome Trust has put it's database of medical images - historical and contemporary - online. There is a lot of cool imagery that is as much art as science. Not surprisingly since it's a medicine-related database, there aren't many images of scientists or engineers. However, there are many images of physicians, including a couple from the Victorian era that joke about "lady doctors".

Education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era. Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake and several other women ("The Edinburgh Seven") had been given permission to attend classes at the Edinburgh medical school in 1869. This was a controversial move:

Doctors, professors and the public had strong feelings about the women's medical education, about whether they should be allowed practical experience in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and whether they should be eligible for degrees. The debate spilled over from the pages of The Times and The Scotsman onto the streets one November afternoon in 1870. A crowd of hundreds gathered near Surgeons' Hall where the women were to take an anatomy examination. They were heckled and had rubbish thrown at them, but Jex-Blake refused to slip away afterwards by a side door. This incident has become known as the "Surgeons' Hall Riot". Later, the Sheriff fined three "disorderly" students £1 each for "breach of the peace".[4] Jex-Blake said the young men had been encouraged by a teaching assistant, but lost when he sued her for defamation.
That was the background for this comic in Punch by Gerald Du Maurier (click for larger version) which was published in August 1870. It depicts a bunch of men - probably lower class based on their accent - willing to do anything for an attractive women, even work for her as nurses.

Dr. Arabella "Well, my good friends, what can I do for you!"
Bill, "Well, Miss, it's all along o' me and my mates bein' out o' work, yer see, and wantin' to turn an honest penny hanyways we can; so 'avin' 'eard tell as you was a risin' young medical practitioner, we thought as p'raps you wouldn' t mind just a recommendin' of hus as nurses."
I'm not sure if Punch is mocking the idea of female doctors or of men who would do anything for a pretty lady (or both).

The second picture (click for larger picture) is an undated woodcut that has a old lady complaining about the gentility of female doctors. The way she complains is pretty funny though. She also is talking in dialect - Scottish maybe? - which probably has some social significance that I'm missing.


The Minister. "Well, Janet, how did you like your new Doctor, Dr. Elizabeth Squills!"
Janet. "Weel, Sir, only pretty well. Ye see, Sir, Dr. Elizabeth isn't so leddylike as some of ain men Doctors!"
The Edinburgh Seven lost their battle to graduate when in 1873 the Court ruled that the University had the right to refuse the women their degrees - and noted that they should not have been admitted in the first place. Five of the seven were eventually granted medical degrees abroad, in Bern or Paris. Finally, in 1876, there was new legislation that enabled examining bodies (if they so desired) to treat candidates of both sexes equally. Jex-Blake set a practice in Edinburgh in 1878 and helped found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

Margaret Todd (1859-1918) was one of the first students at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. She took eight years to complete the four year course, spending part of her time writing a novel, Mona Maclean, Medical Student. When the book was published in 1892 under the pseudonym Graham Travers, the magazine Punch didn't care much for the medical bits, but likes it when Mona behaves in a "womanly" manner :
"My Baronite has been reading Mona Maclean, Medical Student. (Blackwood.) "It is," he tells me, "a Novel with a purpose—no recommendation for a novel, more especially when the purpose selected is that of demonstrating the indispensability of women-doctors." Happily Graham Travers, as the author (being evidently a woman) calls herself, is lured from her fell design. There is a chapter or two of talk among the girls in the dissecting-room and the chemical laboratory, with much about the "spheno-maxillary fossa," the "dorsalis pedis," and the general whereabouts of "Scarpa's triangle." But these can be skipped, and the reader may get into the company of Mona Maclean when she is less erudite, and more womanly. When not dissecting the "plantar arch," Mona is a bright, fearless, clever girl, with a breezy manner, refreshing to all admitted to her company. The episode of her shopkeeping experience is admirably told, and affords the author abundant and varied opportunity of exercising her gift of drawing character. Mona Maclean is, apparently, a first effort at novel-writing. The workmanship improves up to the end of the third volume; and Miss Travers' next book will be better still.
The passage on the dissecting room actually sounds like a bit of fun to me.
It was the luncheon-hour, and the winter term was drawing to a close. The dissecting-room was deserted by all save a few enthusiastic students who had not yet wholly exhausted the mysteries of Meckel's ganglion, the branches of the internal iliac, or the plantar arch. For a long time a hush of profound activity had hung over the room, and the silence had been broken only by the screams of a parrot and the cry of the cats'-meat-man in the street below ; but by degrees the demoralising influence of approaching holidays had begun to make itself felt; in fact, to be quite frank, the girls were gossiping.

It was the dissector of Meckel's ganglion who began it. "If you juniors want a piece of advice," she said, laying down her forceps,—" a thing, by the way, which you never do want, till an examination is imminent, and even then you don't take it,—you may have it for nothing. Form a clear mental picture of the spheno-maxillary fossa. When you have that, the neck of anatomy is broken. Miss Warden, suppose, just to refresh all our memories, you run over the foramina opening into the spheno-maxillary fossa, and the structures passing through them."

The dissector of the plantar arch groaned. "Don't I" she entreated in assumed desperation. "With the examination so near, it makes me quite ill to be asked a question. I should not dare to go up, if Miss Clark were not going."

"I should not have thought she was much stand-by."

" Oh, but she is ! If she passes, I may hope to. I was dissecting the popliteal space the other day, and she asked me if it was Scarpa's triangle ! "

A murmur of incredulity greeted this statement.
It's not just anatomy. Mona and her friend Lucy also chit-chat about organic chemistry.
"I was at the School to-day," Mona went on.

"Were you really? It must have been horrid going back."

"It was very horrid to find the organic solutions in the chemical laboratory at such a low ebb. But I suppose they will be filled up again for the summer term."

"Oh, you know all those stupid old tests ! "

"It is precisely the part of the examination that I am most afraid of. I have not your luck—or power of divination. Why don't they ask us to find whether a hydroxyl group is present in a solution, or something of that kind ?"

"Thank heaven, they don't ! "

"I wonder what a scientific chemist would say, if he were asked to identify two organic mixtures in an hour and a half ! "

"I did it in half an hour."

"Yes, but how ? By tasting, and guessing, and adding I in KI, or perchloride of iron."

Lucy helped herself to more potato.

"I seem to have heard these sentiments before," she said.

Mona laughed. "Yes ; and you are in a fair way to hear them pretty frequently again, unless you keep out of my way for the next four months."
I guess it would never pass for chick lit, but it's refreshing to read about a female character who sounds like a real science (or medical) student.

Todd only practiced medicine for five years, focusing on novel writing. She lived with Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, her romantic partner, and published Jex-Blake's biography in 1918, shortly before her own death.

Related: Listen to BBC4's Woman's Hour Drama, "Famous people in Hastings: Sophia Jex-Blake."

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