‘On the inside sitting alone’: pioneer Irish women doctors

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), Volume 13

Emily Dickson on graduation from the Royal College of Physicians in 1891. (The author)

Emily Dickson on graduation from the Royal College of Physicians in 1891. (The author)

Ireland in the late nineteenth century was still largely rural, with gross poverty and marked social inequalities. Most women were illiterate; health was poor; infectious diseases and multiple pregnancies were common. Unemployment was high, and there was massive emigration (higher among women) to England and the Americas. English fashions and ideas percolated slowly to Ireland, and in neither country did women have a vote or any power to influence change. In England, educated girls found that networking and supporting each other as adults was a powerful tool when working for their independence. Collective action helped them to bring about changes, but the women’s suffrage movement had less impact in Ireland.
Many intelligent women were becoming restless and their struggle for independence began slowly. It was hampered by their lack of education and by the power of men and the churches. The Society of Friends (Quakers), who had always considered women as equals, made some impact on women’s education in Ireland. Irish medical women pioneers tried to change the situation of women but found themselves frustrated by the negative attitudes of many professional men, who were inclined to treat women as second-class individuals. Some of these women were fortunate in having parents who had encouraged their education. Some early Irish women medical students attended the London School of Medicine for Women; others went to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Europe. In Dublin a few attended small private schools such as the Carmichael and Cecilia Street schools, but were not allowed to sit examinations or obtain degrees.
In England Elizabeth Blackwell, who had qualified as a doctor in the United States, was the first woman on the 1858 General Medical Council (GMC) register. She was followed by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who qualified LSA in 1865 and registered with the GMC in 1865. She had a postgraduate degree from Paris. Women were then prevented from being registered to practise until 1876, when Russell Gurney MP successfully introduced a Medical Qualification Act, an amendment to the 1858 GMC Medical Act, which removed the restrictions that the council had introduced to prevent qualification on grounds of gender. In 1877 the King’s and Queen’s College of Ireland (later the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI)) was the first body in the British Isles to allow women to register. On 10 January 1877 the college voted, by a majority of one, to admit women. Women could now sit their examinations, register and get a licence to practise medicine. In 1885 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) agreed to extend its educational facilities to women and to recognise the examination results from the London School of Medicine for Women. The RCSI was the first college in Great Britain and Ireland that allowed women to take its examination. In 1886 the RCPI and the RCSI agreed to a conjoint degree that was registrable. It was obligatory for all candidates to pass medicine, surgery and midwifery before admission to the GMC register. In 1886, out of 50 women on the General Medical Council register, 44 had entered it as licentiates of the Irish King’s and Queen’s College.

Eleanora Fleury (1860–1940)

Dr Fleury, who became a successful psychiatrist, was the first woman member of the Medico Psychological Association (MPA), now the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In 1893 she was proposed by Dr Connolly Norman, a president of the MPA and one-time editor of the Journal of Mental Science. This was refused for a year as the association rules had to be changed to allow her admission. In 1894 she was elected by 23 votes to 7, no mean achievement in a male-dominated age.
Eleanora Fleury was born in Dublin, the daughter of Dr Charles Fleury. She was the first woman medical graduate of Royal University of Ireland (RUI), with first-class honours and a first-class exhibition (1890). She had been a student at the Richmond Hospital in Dublin and the London School of Medicine for Women for a three-month course of clinical instruction in mental diseases. In April 1890 she passed the final examination at RUI and was first in order of merit. Following qualification she worked at the Homerton Fever Hospital in London for a year before returning to Ireland to work at the Richmond Asylum (later called Grangegorman) for 27 years. Dr Fleury became deputy medical director but was always ‘passed over for male colleagues’. From 1921 she worked at Portrane Asylum, Donabate, until she retired in 1926. She died in 1940.

Dr Emily Winifred Dickson, the only woman on the staff of the Richmond Hospital when this photograph was taken in 1896. (The author)

Dr Emily Winifred Dickson, the only woman on the staff of the Richmond Hospital when this photograph was taken in 1896. (The author)

Emily Winifred Dickson [Martin] (1866–1944)

Dr Dickson (Martin) was a pioneer who brought down barriers of sex discrimination, retired to raise a family of five children and then returned to medicine as the family’s breadwinner as a result of her husband’s long-term incapacity. She was born in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, one of six children. Her father was a linen manufacturer, a privy counsellor and MP for County Tyrone (1881–5), and later in Dublin for St Stephen’s Green (1888–92). Her mother was often ill and doctors frequently visited the house. This seems to have prompted her wish to study medicine. Her school education was patchy, and on leaving school she nursed her mother for a year. She applied to Trinity College, Dublin, but was turned down because she was a woman. She went to the Royal College of Surgeons, where she won medals and graduated as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1891. She trained in midwifery at the Rotunda Hospital and qualified MB BCh. BAO with a gold medal in 1893.
In 1896 she was elected the first woman fellow (FRCSI) of any of the Colleges of Surgeons in Britain or Ireland. She was also awarded a travelling scholarship by the RUI and studied in the General Hospital in Vienna and later in Berlin, where she was not allowed to attend ward rounds as she was a woman. On returning to Dublin her application for a post at the Rotunda was refused because of her gender. She practised as a gynaecologist and was appointed to the Richmond Hospital. Having two postgraduate degrees (MD and MAO from RUI in 1896) she published papers and lectured. She was appointed an examiner in midwifery and gynaecology, causing a massive protest by students from both the RSCI and the Catholic Medical School. Fortunately they were ignored.
In 1899 she married Robert Martin, a Scottish businessman, and then gave up work to raise their family of four sons and one daughter. When her husband returned shell-shocked from the First World War and unable to work, she returned to medicine as an assistant medical officer at Rainhill Mental Hospital, Lancashire, then in general practice and as a medical officer of health. Her only daughter, Elizabeth (Betty), took a degree at Oxford University, and later married Lord Clark, the art historian and broadcaster. The late Alan Clark MP was their son.

Elizabeth Bell—a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and a friend and ally of Mrs Pankhurst and Lady Balfour. (The author)

Elizabeth Bell—a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and a friend and ally of Mrs Pankhurst and Lady Balfour. (The author)

Elizabeth Bell (1869–1934)

Dr Bell was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and a friend and ally of Mrs Pankhurst and Lady Balfour, both prominent feminist figures of the time. One of her obituary notices described her as a ‘pioneer of the feminist movement in Ireland’. She qualified in 1893 from the Royal University of Ireland (RUI). She was born in Newry, Co. Down, and was the daughter of Joseph Bell (clerk of the Newry Union). She had a brother and one sister who also qualified in medicine. She married Dr Hugh Fisher but was soon a widow. She had one son, who died in France during the First World War. During that war she worked in Malta. For many years she practised in Belfast, where her patients were mostly women and young children. Dr Bell was Honorary Physician to the Maternity and Baby Home and medical officer to the Belfast Corporation’s ‘Baby Club’. She was noted for her ‘striking personality and intellect’. She died in Belfast on 9 July 1934.

Dame Anne Louise McIlroy (1878–1968)

Dr McIlroy was the first woman Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the University of London at the Royal Free School of Medicine (from 1921 to 1936). In 1929 she became the first woman founder fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She received many honours and became a Dame (DBE) in 1929.
Louise McIlroy was born in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, where her father was a doctor. She was one of three girls—one sister became a doctor and the other became a well-known artist in Scotland. Dr Mcllroy qualified in 1898 in Glasgow and also studied in Dublin, London, Vienna and Berlin. During the 1914–18 war she worked at the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Troyes, and was later surgeon to the RAMC at Constantinople. She received a Croix de Guerre for her services with L’Armée d’Orient in Serbia and Salonika. She published, lectured and was an examiner. When she received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Queen’s University, Belfast, she said that, as an Ulster woman, she particularly valued this honour from her native country. She insisted on anaesthesia for every maternity case and was keen to avoid ‘meddlesome midwifery’. She was described as an excellent teacher. In retirement she lived with her sister in Ayrshire and died at the age of 90.

Kathleen Lynn (1874–1955)

Dr Lynn was distinguished as a nationalist, a feminist and a pioneer in the treatment of children with tuberculosis. She was the first women doctor to obtain all her undergraduate medical training in Ireland. She was born in 1874 near Cong, Co. Mayo, and was the daughter of a canon of the Church of Ireland. She was educated in England, Germany and at Alexandra College, Dublin. As a child growing up in the west of Ireland, she was very aware of gross rural poverty, with poor living conditions and high maternal and infant mortality rates. She was determined to improve matters.

Dame Anne Louise McIlroy, from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim—the first woman Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the University of London at the Royal Free School of Medicine. (Royal Free and University College Medical School)

Dame Anne Louise McIlroy, from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim—the first woman Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the University of London at the Royal Free School of Medicine. (Royal Free and University College Medical School)

For her medical studies she attended the Catholic University School and Cecilia Street and took her degree at the RUI in 1899. She worked at Sir Patrick Dun’s and the Rotunda hospitals. When she was elected to a house surgeon post at the Adelaide Hospital, the general committee refused to accept her because she was a woman. This rejection may have influenced her future views.
In 1909 she took the fellowship in surgery of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. In 1913 she was politically active when she helped the workers in the lockout. She was also active in the Republican movement with Countess Constance Markieviez (a Gore-Booth from Lissadell, Co. Sligo). Kathleen Lynn was a medical officer and a captain in the Irish Citizen Army, and attended the wounded at Dublin City Hall in 1916. For her activities she was jailed and sent to Kilmainham and Mountjoy, and later transferred to Bath. She took the anti-Treaty side and was elected to the Dáil for County Dublin, but she never took her seat.
In 1918, following her discharge from prison, she treated many people suffering from influenza during the post-war epidemic. She worked with her friend Miss Madeleine ffrench-Mullen in a disused building in Charlemont Street. In 1919 this became the site of St Ultan’s infant hospital (Teach Ultain), specifically for medical treatment of infants with TB. The hospital started with £70 and two cots as a result of Dr Lynn’s energy and commitment. She later visited the USA, and the Pathology Department in the hospital was gifted by the Celtic Cross Gift Association of Chicago. All the medical staff were women, possibly as a result of her own experiences with the Adelaide Hospital.
In the 1920s the Irish view of women was as home-makers, and this image was widely cherished, not least by women themselves. Eamon de Valera saw the Irish woman’s place as in the home. As a defender of women’s rights Dr Lynn did not agree; she asserted that ‘we all believe that a woman’s place is in the home, provided she has a home’, and pointed out that not all women wanted to be tied to the kitchen sink. The National University (Women’s) Graduates’ Association had been disturbed by adverse comments in the Irish Press and a crude attempt to suppress women’s rights, with a reference to ‘Learned ladies whose zeal in the National cause had in many cases been conspicuous by its absence’. The attempt to suffocate Irish women in the ‘green flag’ was quickly abandoned after Kathleen Lynn’s indignant response: she provided the signatures of a thousand women of impeccable Republican credentials who rejected total confinement to the kitchen. She pointed out that women graduates were not only interested in ‘hearth and home’ but also believed in Irish equality and did not wish to be marginalised. The Irish Press had to climb down. Towards the end of her life she lived in County Wicklow in a cottage given to her by Countess Markievicz. This is now the youth hostel at Glenmalure. She died on 13 September 1955.
Dr Lynn was small, active and altruistic. She rode her bicycle everywhere, disapproved of lipstick and thought that wearing slacks was unwomanly. As one of her colleagues said, it was difficult to imagine this small, energetic and idealistic woman as a military leader.

Conclusion

Dr Kathleen Lynn (seated third from left, beside Arthur Griffith) with other delegates at the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, 23 May 1922. She was the first woman doctor to obtain all her undergraduate medical training in Ireland. (Irish Historical Picture Company)

Dr Kathleen Lynn (seated third from left, beside Arthur Griffith) with other delegates at the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, 23 May 1922. She was the first woman doctor to obtain all her undergraduate medical training in Ireland. (Irish Historical Picture Company)

These five early Irish women doctors were all, in their different ways, exceptional individuals who succeeded in their chosen profession despite discrimination on grounds of gender. Joining the profession in the first place was a major challenge for them. Most came from privileged families and had strong domestic and family support. Their contribution to medicine was mainly in women’s health and childcare and psychiatry, where they were perhaps perceived as less of a threat to their male colleagues and women patients liked them. During the First World War attitudes began to change. Women surgeons ran their own hospitals in France. They proved competent, effective and resourceful. They were intelligent, motivated and courageous, and they paved the way for other Irish women doctors who have followed.
Attitudes to women doctors have changed. In the early twentieth century a successful woman doctor described her position in the profession as being ‘on the inside sitting alone’. One hundred years later, women are prominent in all branches of medicine in Ireland, as elsewhere, and owe their success in large part to these early pioneers.

Dame Beulah Bewley is Emeritus Reader in Public Health Sciences at the University of London.

Further reading:

E. Crofton, The women of Royaumont: a Scottish women’s hospital on the western front (Tuckwell Press, 1997).

J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912–1985: politics and society (Cambridge, 1989).

T. Neville Bonner, To the ends of the earth: women’s search for education in medicine (Harvard, 1992).

R. Pringle, Sex and medicine: gender, power and authority in the medical profession (Cambridge, 1998).

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