‘So Radical A Change’: Medical men, female practitioners and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, 1873-1892

Written by on May 12, 2021

Kristin Hay

Admitting Women Series – Part two

Kristin Hay is a medical historian and a doctoral research intern at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. She is currently working on the ‘Admitting Women’ project which explores gender inequality within the College’s history as part of the Heritage and Inclusion Programme.

Fellows dinner, c. 1914

The late-nineteenth century was a watershed for women’s entry into the medical profession. In the twenty years that followed the Medical Act of 1858 and the creation of the Medical Register, only two women had qualified to practice medicine in Britain. [1] Whilst medical men fought to legitimise their profession, they also sought to curate a professional identity that was inherently coded as male. As such, they excluded female healers from medical education and examination which, following the 1858 Act, became mandatory for obtaining a medical licence. However, due to the campaigning efforts of women physicians, in 1876 an Amendment was made to the medical act – subsequently called the ‘Enabling Bill’ – which stated:

‘The powers of every body entitled under the Medical Act to grant qualifications for registration shall extend to the granting of any qualification for registration granted by such body to all persons without distinction of sex.’ [2]

Enabling Bill (1876)

With this amendment, medicine became one of the first professions to explicitly admit women, with the vast majority of vocations refusing to equalise until after women’s suffrage. Although women could receive medical degrees elsewhere in Europe, the 1876 Act represented a significant shift in the gender politics of British medicine.

Despite being an early example of gender equality, women continued to face significant institutional and cultural barriers to a career in medicine. As discussed previously, following the Enabling Bill, the then-titled Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, alongside the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons of Edinburgh, admitted women into their Conjoint Examination. Yet, although being one of the earliest medical authorities to open their licences to women, the Faculty’s attitudes remained hostile towards female doctors and their inclusion into medicine, thus complicating their role in creating a portal for women’s entry into the Medical Register.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Faculty had taken an oppositional position towards female medical practitioners. They rejected plans to amend to the Medical Act in women’s favour, petitioning to the House of Commons in 1875 against the proposal to grant women with foreign degrees licences by arguing that:

‘It would be unjust and partial legislation and opposed to the spirit of the Medical Act 1858 to amend…that the medical degrees of five continental Universities selected apparently for no other reason than that they permit graduation to persons of both sexes.’ [3]

‘Petition by the Faculty against the Medical Act Amendment (Foreign Universities) Bill’ (1875)

They also, alongside all medical bodies in Britain, refused to recognise the London School of Medicine for Women as an extramural medical school. [4] Thus, the women learning there could not use their courses as a qualifying education. Furthermore, two years after the Enabling Bill, in 1878, a woman referenced in the College Minutes as ‘Miss Taffe’, from Kelvinside was refused entry to the Faculty Diploma on the basis that ‘the Faculty do not grant their License to women [and] they decline to admit them to any of their examinations.’ [5] They had the power to refuse her because although the Enabling Act allowed women entry into the medical register, it did not make it mandatory for medical authorities to admit them, limiting the influence and progressive nature of the Amendment Act.

The Faculty’s eventual admission of women to the Triple Qualification in 1884, then, was less the result of the progressive pursuit of equality, but rather an issue of expediency in the face of growing pressure to compete with the universities – who continued to exclude women but who were receiving greater numbers of students of medicine at this time.

The Faculty’s hostility towards women following their entry to the Conjoint Diploma was further discernible in discussions surrounding the issue of female Fellowship. In 1892, Dr Munro motioned to admit women as Fellows, but it was voted down by a majority of the Faculty, on the suggestion that ‘it is inexpedient at present to discuss, or come to any decision in the matter referred to.’ [6] However, in debating the possibility of admitting women, the Clerk of the Faculty stated that:

‘If every individual Member or Fellow of Faculty consented, I do not think any legal objection intervenes to the admission of women; but having regard to the interpretation of the Faculty’s powers under its Charter of erection, drawn from immemorial and consistent on invariable practice, and to the whole tenor and phraseology of its Regulations…I entertain grave doubt as to the competency of making so radical a change on a constitutional point.’ [7]

‘Admission of Women to the Fellowship’ (1892)

The Clerk’s views reflect the ways in which women’s career progression within medicine was limited by their gender during this period. While the Faculty were ambivalent towards giving women licences, more senior qualifications seemingly called into question the issue of the Faculty’s identity and reputation. As Catriona Blake argues, British male doctors ‘believed that female entry would only hinder attempts to improve the prestige of the profession,’ highlighting ‘the vulnerability of the mid-Victorian medical profession.’ [8]

Fellows had increased rights and privileges within the Faculty and could vote in Council elections. They also had a heightened presence and influence within the Faculty’s community and therefore its outward-facing professional persona. Although they did not, at this time, envision a legal limitation to admitting women as Fellows, the evocation of the Faculty’s Charter, enacted in 1599, and the history and legacy of the Corporation showed that refusing women entry to the fellowship was a considered a cultural and ideological decision amongst its members. As we shall see in the posts that follow, this theoretical discussion surrounding women’s entry as Fellows in 1892 had real-world applications and consequences at the end of the century. 

Despite the progressive legislation and the early role of the College in admitting women as medical practitioners, the attitudes towards the role of female physicians remained discriminatory in the second half of the nineteenth century. The fact that the mere suggestion of female fellowship was considered ‘radical’ further emphasises the attitudes within medicine at this time, and the ambition of the profession to remain exclusively male. Although the Faculty admitted women to its Diploma, it was not interested in proactively supporting the advancement of women in medicine nor elevating their status within the hierarchy of the profession. Moreover, it was not concerned with associating the reputation of the College with gender equality.

By looking at the history of inequality within the College’s history, we acknowledge the ways in which our community has diversified since the nineteenth century and recognise the significant challenges women have faced in pursuit a medical career.

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References:

[1] Four women joined Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garret Anderson in 1877, see C. Blake, The Charge of the Parasols: Women’s Entry to the Medical Profession (London: Women’s Press, 1990), p. xvii

[2] ‘Medical Act 1876 (30 + 40 Vict. 42)’

http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1876/act/41/section/1/enacted/en/html [accessed 10 May 2021]

[3] RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/10, College Minutes, ‘Petition by Faculty against Medical Act Amendment (Foreign Universities) Bill, (7th June 1875), p. 170

[4] RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/10, College Minutes, ‘Report anent application of London School of Medicine for Women’ (7th December 1874), pp. 144-145

[5] RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/10, College Minutes, ‘Application by Miss Taffe for Permission to enter the preliminary examination of the Faculty’ (1 July 1878), pp. 340-341. Miss Taffe was refused on the basis of an earlier application by a female practitioner, see RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/10, College Minutes, ‘Application of Miss Jane Ingleton to be admitted to Preliminary Examination’ (7th April 1873) pp. 67-68

[6] RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/12, College Minutes, ‘Admission of women to the Fellowship’ (2nd May 1892)

[7] RCPSG, GB 250 1/1/1/12, College Minutes, ‘Admission of Women to the Fellowship’ (1 February 1892) p. 522

[8] Blake, Charge of the Parasols, p. 42

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The College’s heritage collections – including thousands of medical and surgical instruments, rare books, archives, and pictures – span over 6 centuries and are an excellent resource for exploring the history of medicine and the history of the city of Glasgow. Many items from the collections have been digitised and are available to view here. Our digitisation work is ongoing, and we add new items to the site regularly, so keep checking back to discover more.

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