For centuries women have worked as surgeons, nurses, physicians, midwives and a variety of other medical and healthcare related roles in a male dominated medical world. Their involvement in the field throughout a lot of this time has sparked intense debate as to their capability. Thankfully, in 2018 this debate has completely ceased in many countries around the world.
In this article we 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 Colourful History
When we look back today it is difficult to comprehend the difficulties women faced when trying to forge a career in Medicine. The 1511 Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom was the first piece of legislation which referred to women working in the field of medicine. The Act however wasn’t very supportive of women and it actually made it illegal for a woman to practice medicine.
In essence the Act of 1511 suggested that women are ignorant of medicine and are unfit to practice it….
“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 more than 400 years, the Royal College of Physicians in the UK used their powers to licence doctors and to define who could or could not become a doctor – and they continuously chose to ignore women.
At this point in time a catalyst was needed – someone to change the status quo and break into a completely male dominated profession. Elizabeth Garret Anderson, was that person and in the mid 1800’s she became the first female doctor. Elizabeth wrote to the College of Physicians in London on numerous occasions putting pressure on the organisation to recognise her medical qualifications.
It was not until 1876 that a new Medical Act passed in the UK which allowed the British medical authorities to licence all qualified applicants regardless of their gender.
In 1895 Elizabet Garret Anderson became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women and ultimately, her achievements are viewed as a very important step in helping to increase the role of women in medicine.
World War 1
A key turning point in the history of women in medicine and healthcare was the World War One. A consequence of the millions of men leaving their homes to fight in the trenches, was that women surgeons and physicians showed they were able to make a very positive impact in healthcare.
The circumstances allowed the women of the day to prove they were more than capable of not just treating other women, but also capable of treating men with the exact same level of skill as any other their male counterparts.
During the war the Endell Street Hospital in London played a central role in treating the casualties. It was the first hospital in history to be entirely staffed and run by women and funded by the Royal Army.
The women at this time faced extraordinary challenges carving out careers in the medical world and were exceptionally strong and courageous in pushing back the boundaries. The progress that these women made was significant and a turning point. Women’s role in medicine began to change in the decades that followed.
The changes during the 20th century was none more evident than in Ireland, a number of women played key roles in altering the perception of women in medicine and healthcare. Below highlights two examples:
In 1893, Dr Emily Winifred Dickson, was the first woman fellow in any of the Colleges of Surgeons in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. She originally applied to Trinity College Dublin but was not granted a place in the course because she was a woman. Later in her career she was appointed assistant master to the Coombe Lying-in Hospital in Dublin and worked as an examiner in midwifery at the Royal College of Surgeons after finishing her doctorate in medicine.
Dr Victoria Coffey is another significant figure in Irish medical history. Born in Dublin in 1911, became one of the first ever paediatricians in Ireland. Dr Coffey forged out a very successful career and went on to become the first woman president of the Irish Paediatric Association. She was also one of the first to investigate metabolic disorders in new born babies in Ireland. In 1936, Dr Coffey graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons and carried out important and innovative work such as investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She also completed research into the effects of the thalidomide drug being used on women and their children.
Nowadays women still face many different challenges but thankfully things have improved, owing in no small part to the achievements of their predecessors.
Trulife – Shaping the Future
At Trulife we are extremely proud of these trailblazing women and are truly inspired by them. We fully embrace gender balance in the workplace. Right throughout our organisation – 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, in particular through 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.