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Women in Medicine: (Autograph Letter Collection)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 106 9/05
Held at: Women's Library
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Full title: Women in Medicine: (Autograph Letter Collection)
Date(s): 1865-1972
Level of description: fonds
Extent: 1 A box (1 volume)
Name of creator(s): Various
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

In the early nineteenth century it was impossible for women to practice as doctors in Great Britain. The alternative choice of nursing was seen as a corrupt profession of the unskilled and the lower classes until the middle of the century. Both attitudes were caused by women's lack of access to training in the profession, largely through the parallel lack of access to training in universities and colleges that were only open to men. The one role open to them, midwifery, was constantly undermined and devalued due to this very lack of university education involved in learning its skills. In America the situation was slightly different: the English-born Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor though rejection by male colleagues forced her to set up a women's hospital in New York. Visits to London in the 1850s led to work at the St Bartholomew's Hospital and friendship with Florence Nightingale. In 1859 the General Medical Council admitted her to the Medical Register but the following year a special GMC charter made it possible to exclude doctors with foreign medical degrees, leaving women who had qualified on foreign soil open to attack. Nonetheless, in 1869 Blackwell moved permanently to London and there established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1870, as well as the National Health Society. Blackwell's influence on British women intending to enter medicine was already great: in 1862 the Female Medical Society was established and Elizabeth Garrett decided to enter the profession under her advice. However, Garrett's initial attempts to enter several medical schools failed due to the continuing refusal of universities to accept female students. Instead, she was forced to become a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, a profession that had become respectable through the work of Nightingale and her colleagues in professionalising nursing training and practice. Nevertheless, it came to light that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned from taking their examinations and in 1865 Garrett sat and passed their examination before the loophole that allowed this was closed. Other countries began to allow women to enter the profession: in 1864 the University of Zurich admitted female students while the universities of Paris, Berne and Geneva followed suit in 1867. Garrett later was appointed visiting physician to the East London Hospital but though she subsequently graduated from the University of Paris, the British Medical Register refused to recognise her MD degree. In the next few years she opened the women-run New Hospital for Women in London with Elizabeth Blackwell and helped Sophia Jex-Blake to establish the London Medical School for Women to which Garrett Anderson was elected Dean of the London School of in 1884. The legal situation of women who wished to become doctors did not change, however. Though Edinburgh University allowed Sophia Jex-Blake and Edith Pechy to attend medical lectures in 1869, male fellow students rioted and their final examinations were rendered void as university regulations only allowed medical degrees to be given to men. The consequence of this was that the British Medical Association therefore refused to register the women as doctors. However, Russell Gurney, a MP and supporter of women's rights took the first legal steps to remedying the situation and in 1876 the Enabling Act was passed that allowed universities to award female students degrees in their subject. This meant that all medical training bodies were now free to teach women in this area if they chose to do so. The following year the Royal Free Hospital admitted women medical students for clinical training and the University of London adopted a new charter in 1878 that allowed women to graduate from their courses. Individual institutions were slowly forced to change their practices to permit women to hold their degrees, though some, like Oxford and Cambridge, resisted until 1920 and 1948 respectively. By 1891, 101 women doctors were in practice in the British Isles, and the following years the British Medical Association was finally forced to admit women doctors.


Scope and content/abstract:

The collection is arranged in chronological order and includes letters written by and to individuals concerned with work in this area, including: Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, Sir John Seeley, George Eliot, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Cardinal Manning, Lady Strangford, Lord Shaftesbury, Mr Rickman J Godlee Dr Helen Wilson, Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, Frances Power Cobbe, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Lord Baldwin and Margaret Lawrence (45 items, 1865-c.1972). Subjects include the training of women as doctors, the medical profession and their experiences as medical students.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:


Conditions governing access:

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Finding aids:

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Allied Materials

Related material:

Personal papers of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (7EGA) and her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson (7LGA) are held at The Women's Library. Other Collections within Strand 9 which may be of interest include 9/01 Women's Suffrage, 9/02 General Women's Movement, 9/03 Emancipation of Women, 9/04 Female Education, 9/10 Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Finding aid created by export from CALM v7.2.14 Archives Hub EAD2002. Edited for AIM25 by Sarah Drewery.

Rules or conventions:
In compliance with ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description - 2nd Edition (1999); UNESCO Thesaurus, December 2001; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:

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