As an aspiring surgeon, I am interested in how women’s role in medicine has changed over the decades, especially in hearing the chatter about the participation of girls in science and other areas of work like surgery.

In medieval texts, the supervisors of pregnancy were all women; the mothers and female family members of the mother and midwives. Female healers were trained by their male family members [1]- there seemed to have been plenty of opportunity in terms of how long ago this was.

In fact, it was education as an establishment that began to separate women from medicine [1]; Hildegard of Bingen’s books are so significant because women rarely wrote in Latin [2], the language of medicine. In the later Middle Ages, women were excluded from guilds and universities, limiting them to only midwifery and nursing. Trotula (a pseudonym) from the Salerno medical school, was an exception to this exclusion, in fact, in a time when women were denied education, Salerno welcomed female students and teachers. Trotula is considered the first gynaecologist, specialising in obstetrics, gynaecology, cosmetics and skin disease, writing many works including the Trotula Major, written to educate men on the female body, something they knew little of at the time. She trained her students to observe their patients and to examine them thoroughly in order to prescribe them proper treatment. In some ways, she was ahead of her time, teaching her students to listen to their patients and ask questions about their illnesses, recommending a balanced diet, exercise, a low stress lifestyle and cleanliness. Trotula recommended sewing any tears a woman gained during childbirth. She was maybe more in tune with her time by believing that women’s health should be cared for by women, mirroring the practice mentioned above [3].

However, by the mid 1500’s, women were officially banned from attending university and Trotula’s works were attributed to a man. There are limited records of women in this time with names like Sister Ann who worked at St Leonard’s Hospital in York but we have little idea what it was that she did because she was a woman.

A previously female dominated field became quickly male- dominated with female’s sexual organs being seen as inferior and women as ‘leaky vessels’, flabbier while men were more muscular. Books like the De secretis mulierum (On Women’s Secrets) were supposed to speak on human reproduction but stated that women were evil [4] and that the persecution of them was justified by claiming that women are prone to witchcraft which should be punishable by death. The author was ignorant of women’s anatomy, believing that the vagina was for urinating [5]. The womb was seen as an unstable organ and women were less ‘balanced’ then men [1].

During the 19th century, these ideas were prevalent with reactionaries saying that women were gynaecologically and physically unfit for higher education and that using the brain too much would cause infertility [1]. However, it was also the century that was somewhat of a turning point with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor who graduated top of her class. She was the first female on the UK Medical Register in 1859 and her sister Emily was the 3rd lady [6] to gain a medical degree. It was a miracle that she was accepted into Geneva Medical College as the 150 male students had to vote unanimously to accept her into their class. Blackwell formed the New York Infirmary for Indignant Women in 1857 and depite the backing of her male mentors, she was refused from working in many hospitals because of her gender, and she eventually set up her own practice in New York. At the time, female doctors were seen as abortionists.

Progress came slowly with the loophole that allowed Elizabeth Garrett to gain the Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery of the Society of Apothecaries being closed quickly in 1865 and Edinburgh medical students rioted against the admission of female students in 1870 leading to Sophia Jex-Blake attempting to set up a college for medical women there- eventually Edinburgh did admit female students, in 1894[7]. Universities began allowing female medicine students like the University of Zurich in 1864, of Paris in 1867. In 1892, the British Medical Association admitted women doctors [7].

By 1976, 20% British doctors were women and today the proportion of female doctors to male is now the majority but in terms of being in higher level positions like becoming professors and entering male dominated fields like surgery, there is still a disconnect between the number of girls interested and the number who make it out to the other side.

I am happy that women now have the opportunity to be equal to men in medicine but the fact that the opportunities are there don’t avoid the consequences of our social opinions and gender roles putting the health system under strain. The thing is, women are, as well as being capable of the jobs that men dominate, able to give birth and most want to. In terms of medicine, this reduces the hours that female doctors can work due to demands of looking after the children. Governments use this as an excuse to still exclude women as the most recent Junior Doctors Contract shows but if the government put in place regulations that made it realistic for women who want to to be doctors and mothers there wouldn’t be a problem. Furthermore, for there to be true equality between men and women in the workplace, there must be equality at home, meaning the role of raising the kids should be shared by both parents as much as possible.

What are your thoughts of the role of women in medicine? I’d love to know! Or, is it evident by the fact that I’ve written this post that maybe there maybe isn’t as much equality as we’d like to think there is?

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[1]The Greatest Benefit to Mankind by Roy Porter