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Women in medicine

Statue of Florence Nightingale and a wounded soldier, England, 1856-1920

Statue of Florence Nightingale and a wounded soldier, England, 1856-1920

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Women have always been central in providing medical care, whether offering remedies in the home, nursing or acting as herbalists. However, the medical profession has been male dominated for most of its history. In Europe this came about from the 1400s, when many cities and governments decided that only those trained in universities were allowed to formally practise medicine. As women were not allowed into the universities they could not gain a licence. It was only in the 1900s, after much struggle, that women won the right to study and practise medicine in the same way as men.

Nuns and medical care


There was a woman doctor - Trotula - at the earliest European medical school in Salerno, Italy, in the 800s CE. But medieval universities were run by male clerics, and women were not allowed to enter them. It is clear that women did practise medicine, often in their own town or village, or through their role as nuns. Like monks, nuns provided much medical care in the medieval period. Christian abbesses such as the author Hildegard of Bingen set up convent infirmaries and nursing orders of nuns.

Medical science excludes women

During the Renaissance traditional women’s medicine started to be undermined. Even well-educated women could still not enter universities to take advantage of the developing science of medicine. A rare exception was Dr Laura Bassi, appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna in 1732. Guilds were also closed to women, so they could not join the new professional colleges and societies.

Jobs traditionally held by women


Despite being excluded from formal education, women provided many paid services that the public needed, including sick-nursing and wet-nursing, midwifery, minor surgery and general physic. Wet-nursing was unlicensed and remained a casual trade - although a very large one. Midwives were unable to form guilds, but they had to be licensed. In the 1600s midwives such as Louise Bourgeois and Jane Sharp became the first to write about their experiences. However, male practitioners were gradually replacing women in their traditional roles - even in such areas as childbirth. The Chamberlen brothers developed forceps in the early 1600s, which remained a family secret until the 1730s. Their use of a new tool and their professional training allowed such man-midwives to claim that they were more scientific than their female ‘competitors’. From the 1700s a surge of reforming doctors’ manuals dismissed traditional and folk medicine as unscientific tales of the ‘old nurses’ and ‘old wives’ variety.

New respect for nurses as a result of war

It was through nursing that women first made significant inroads into formal medical practice. Changes in nursing started with the hospital and prison reformers of the late 1700s. New training for nurses became available, notably at the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserworth in Germany (1836), which influenced Florence Nightingale. Nightingale reorganised army hospital nursing during the Crimean War (1853-56), while Jamaican healer Mary Seacole attended the wounded in the camps and set up her own nursing home. Florence Nightingale helped promote nursing as a more respectable profession for young women. The first ‘Nightingale nurses’ began training in 1860 and spread throughout the UK and the British Empire. Nightingale also revolutionised future hospital design. Established in 1863, the International Red Cross was another force in nurse training.

The battle for female doctors


The nursing role was seen as an extension of women's social role: caring and nurturing. However, there was not the same openness to women becoming doctors. Many women attempted to become doctors in the 1800s - Margaret Bulkley even masqueraded as a male doctor for 46 years. At the end of the century women gained the right to study for the same qualifications as men. These first female doctors, such as Elizabeth Blackwell (in the USA) or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (in the UK), had to battle considerable resistance. The two women were instrumental in establishing specialist clinics for women and children, and women’s training hospitals.

The First World War and the need for women in medicine

It was only during the First World War that the need for doctors combined with declining numbers of men in medical school saw women being encouraged to enter medical training. In theory medical practice is now open to all. Entry into medical courses is competitive, and can be expensive. Some specialities, such as surgery, continue to be dominated by male practitioners.

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B Abel-Smith, A History of the Nursing Profession (London: Heinemann, 1960)

M Baly, Florence Nightingale and the Nursing Legacy (Croom Helm 1986)

A K Boulis, The Changing Face of Medicine : Women Doctors and the Evolution of Health Care in America (Ithaca, NY/ London : Cornell University Press, 2008)

R Dingwall, A M Rafferty, C Webster (eds) An Introduction to the Social History of Nursing (London: Routledge, 1988)

M H Green (ed.), The Trotula. A Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

M H Green, Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000)

L Hall, Hygieia’s Handmaids (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1988)

R Morantz-Sanchez, R Markell, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians In American Medicine (New York/Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1985)

E Wayland Barber, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years. Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York/London: Norton, 1994)