Women have worked as physicians, surgeons, nurses, midwives and various other medical/healthcare related jobs in a male dominated medical world for centuries. Their involvement through much of this time provoked intense debate as to their capability. Thankfully, in 2018 this has totally changed in most countries around the world. We take a look back over 500 years of women in healthcare and medicine and review the journey that women have made in contributing to the evolution of the medical profession.
A Colorful History
Looking back today it is hard to fathom the difficulties women faced when trying to forge their way in Medicine. The 1511 Act of Parliament in the UK was the first piece of legislation which referred to women working in medicine. The Act however was not supportive of women and in fact made it illegal for a woman to practice medicine.
In essence the Act suggested that women are ignorant of medicine and unfit to practice.
“For as the Science and Cunning of Physick and Surgery…. is daily within this realm exercised by a great multitude of ignorant persons….Women…. take upon them great Cures, and things of great difficulty in which they partly use Sorcery and Witchcraft…”
For over 400 years, the Royal College of Physicians used their powers to license doctors and define who could or couldn’t be a doctor – and they chose to continuously overlook women.
At the time what was needed was someone to succeed in changing the status quo and break into the completely male dominated industry. As it turned out that person was Elizabeth Garret Anderson, who in the mid 1800’s became the first female doctor. She wrote to the College of Physicians in London numerous times putting pressure on them to recognize her medical qualifications. It wasn’t until 1876 that a new Medical Act passed allowing the British medical authorities to license all qualified applicants regardless of their gender.
In 1895 she become Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women and ultimately, her achievements are seen as significant in helping to increase the role of women in medicine.
The First World War
A crucial turning point in the history of women in medicine was the First World War. A consequence of the millions of young men leaving to fight in the war, was that women physicians and surgeons were able to show they could make a positive impact in medicine. Circumstances allowed women to prove they were capable of not only treating other women, but also treating men with the same level of skill as any other male practitioner.
In London, the Endell Street Hospital was at the center of the treatment of casualties during the war. It was the first ever hospital to be completely run and staffed by women and was funded by the Royal Army.
The women around this time faced exceptional challenges forging careers in medicine and had to be extremely strong and courageous to push back the boundaries. The progress they made ultimately set the tone for the big strides that would be made in the decades that followed.
The progress during the 20th century was none more evident than in Ireland, several women have played key roles in changing the perception of women in medicine. Below are two such examples:
Dr Victoria Coffey was born in Dublin in 1911 and become one of the first ever pediatricians in Ireland. She went on to become the first woman president of the Irish Paediatric Association and was one of the first to investigate metabolic disorders in new born babies in Ireland. In 1936, Coffey graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons and conducted ground-breaking work such as investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She also carried out important research into the effects of the thalidomide drug being used on women and their children.
Dr Emily Winifred Dickson is another important figure in Irish medical history. In 1893, early in her career, Dr Dickinson was the first woman fellow in any of the Colleges of Surgeons in both Ireland and the UK. She originally applied to Trinity College Dublin but was refused a place as she was a woman. Later she was appointed assistant master to the Coombe Lying-in Hospital in Dublin and worked as an examiner in midwifery at the Royal College or Surgeons after completing her doctorate in medicine.
Today women still face a variety of challenges but thankfully things have come a long way, owing in no small part to the achievements of their predecessors.
Trulife – Shaping the Future
We are extremely proud of these trailblazing women and are truly inspired by them. At Trulife we fully embrace gender balance in the workplace. Right throughout our organization – from research and design to manufacturing to business operations and senior management – we have a blend of both female and male employees.
“In the past it is clear that women have been discouraged from entering the world of healthcare and science. Here at Trulife we look towards the future and are very excited to see so many women studying in these fields. Many of our new recruits are women and they make a wonderful contribution to our company. It’s a trend we will continue to embrace and support in the coming years.” Olive Gunning – Trulife General Manager
Trulife has a long history of creating products that make a real difference to the lives of women all around the world through, in particular though our Trulife Breastcare products.
Trulife was responsible for the first commercially successful Breast Prosthesis, created by Walter Kausch in 1958 for his wife who had had a mastectomy following treatment for breast cancer. We have continued to be a leader in the empowerment of women through healthcare and we are passionate in driving this ethos forward – for our team, clients and communities around the world.