‘Women were deemed physically and mentally incapable of practicing medicine’

Head to the Royal College of Physician’s exhibition on the “vexed question” of women in medicine


emale physicians, apothecaries, surgeons, writers of recipes, nurses and midwives have worked within a male-dominated medical world for centuries. Their involvement has always provoked intense debate; or as one 1870 commentary put it, “the vexed question of women in medicine.”

Let’s take the 500-year-old Royal College of Physicians: for four centuries they refused to recognise female practitioners. Though they would sometimes look the other way, the general consensus was that women were neither physically nor mentally capable of being doctors, plus the resistance from their male peers was almost ubiquitous.

In this important exhibition – which spreads over the College’s entire second floor – the key debates over gender and medicine in the UK over the last half-century are showcased.

There are insights into the arduous path early practitioners went down to gain recognition in the medical world, documenting for example the infamous court case of the Edinburgh Seven, who lost their fight to take medical degrees in Britain in the late 19th century. Alongside this there are insights into how connected their push in the medical world was with women’s movements for suffrage and equal pay campaigns.

All in all, it makes a fascinating afternoon.

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Women in Medicine: the Vexed Question is free, ends 18th January 2019, Royal College of physicians 11 St Andrews Pl, NW1. More info head here.

Main image: John Chase (c) Royal College of Physicians

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