Women in Medicine

I was reading the Student British Medical Journal (BMJ) and there was an article that really struck me. They had asked the question “Do you think wider society stills thinks of medicine as a more ‘male’ profession?”. The answer really surprised me as 60% of people had said yes where only 31% had said no. Being female myself, I am not prejudiced against woman taking a higher stance in the professional world and am very proud of what women have done in the past in order to get to where we are today and the response shocked me by thinking that things had not progressed as far as I had previously thought they had.

Dr James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley)

Dr James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley)

This made me think about the history of women in medicine and I did a little research. I came across some extraordinary findings that a woman (Margaret Ann Bulkley) had pretended to be a man, taking the name of her late uncle (James Barry), for 46 years in order for her to become a doctor. She had to do this due to the fact that no British medical school admitted women and her passion to become a doctor drove her to the extremes that she went to. I find it quite sad that any person would have to pretend to be someone they are not just because a group of people do not accept women in jobs in the field of medicine. It is also upsetting to know that no one knew who she really was despite all of her great achievements; not only was she the first woman to graduate as a medical doctor in 1812 (even if it was in secret), but she was also the first British surgeon to perform a successful Caesarean section, saving the lives of mother and baby. After six months as a pupil at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Bulkley decided to join the army to continue her career as an army medical officer. To read more about her story, here is the link:

Another important figurehead for women in the medical profession is Elizabeth Blackwell, the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school on 23 January 1849. She had managed to secure the necessary school funds by taking a job as a music teacher and studied in secret by reading medical books and getting private tutoring from Dr Jonathon M Allen. She applied to 12 schools and despite all of the rejection and resistance being thrown at her, she was accepted into Geneva Medical College in New York.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

After graduating, Blackwell decided to go to Europe to pursue her career and was met with a lot of hostility but also met with a few people who were voluntarily willing to work with her. She was mentored by Paul Dubois, a famous obstetrician, who voiced his opinion that she  would make the best obstetrician in the United States. Unfortunately, when she was treating an infant with ophthalmia neonatorum (a form of conjunctivitis contracted by newborns during delivery), she spurted some contaminated solution into her own eye accidentally, and contracted the infection. This caused her to become blind in her left eye ultimately destroying her chances to become a surgeon.

Elizabeth Blackwell then returned to the United States to open up her own practice. She was once again faced with resistance and did not have many patients. She published a couple of books and in 1874 was successful in opening the London School of Medicine for Women. She became quite successful and took other aspiring female doctors under her wing to train. Even in her late years, she was still quite active and even published an autobiography on her life in the medical profession.

Even after reading all of this, it still left me shocked to see the response and perhaps even more so. I understand that men and women are still not treated as equals and hopefully one day that will change but the work women had to put in to do something that men could easily grasp makes me slightly angry. Why should it be harder for women? It is probably because in the past men were seen as the doctors and women were only the nurses and things are still commonly seen this way; especially with the older generations. This made me think of the first episode of ‘Greys Anatomy’ where one of the interns called the main character (Meredith) a nurse despite knowing that she was a fellow surgeon. Men could be and probably were resentful to women partly because of their gender but also because they would have been a threat if they were better than them. I am glad that things are changing and it is acceptable for women to be doctors and even for men to be nurses but I wish that more of the wider society would keep up with the times and think in the same way.

Thanks for staying with me during my rant,


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