“Lady-Physicians”, Punch, 23 December 1865. Engraving by George du Maurier. Wellcome Images.
For the last few months I’ve been trawling nineteenth-century medical journals to find evidence of male doctors’ views on women entering the profession. While I’ve discovered a huge spectrum of opinion – from the progressive to the vehement – when it comes to writing papers for the summer conference season, it’s (unsurprisingly) the barmiest reasons behind men’s antipathy to medical women that I’m hoping to shoehorn in. After one or two of my gems yielded laughs at the recent ‘Working with Medical and Health Periodicals’ Workshop in Oxford, I thought I’d share some of my personal highlights on this blog.
So here – in no particular order – are my top ten reasons (gleaned from the pages of the medical press) on why Victorian medical men (and one laywoman correspondent!) thought the fairer sex should be precluded from the profession…
- Co-education is a dirty business #1: The idea of men and women studying anatomy alongside one another generated a huge amount of histrionics. Take the BMJ’s Parisian correspondent who was keen to share some of the “demoralising spectacles” he’d seen in his city, namely, “a young woman dissecting the thigh of a male subject while several male students were dissecting other parts of the same body”, and “another young woman, with unblushing front, taking notes along with young men, her fellow-students of a lecture […] exclusively devoted to the mons Veneris, clitoris, and hymen”. (“Special Correspondence, Paris: Women-Doctors: Parisian Socialists and Edinburgh Professors”, BMJ, 28 May 1870.)
- Co-education is a dirty business #2: While Edward Clarke, Professor of Materia Medica at Harvard and author of Sex in Education, felt a medical education could be “enobling” for both men and women, he was unconvinced they should study together. Deciding only a metaphor could really carry his point, Clarke contended: “A bath is a necessary, luxurious, and purifying process for all, but it does not follow that it is wise for the two sexes to bathe at the same time and in the same tub”. (Reported in ‘The Week’, Medical Times and Gazette, 29 January 1870.)
- Women should stick to their sphere: “Ladies are all very well in their place, and that is looking after the latest Paris fashions and making tea at home.” (Correspondence from “A Country Gentleman, and MRCS” in Medical Press and Circular, 5 January 1870.)
- Medical men might lose their sex appeal: The BMJ feared that, if women clinched men’s jobs, “the effect will, in the long run, be to increase celibacy by reducing the emoluments of the male sex”. (“Lady Surgeons”, BMJ, 2 April 1870.)
- Who wants them there? Aspiring medical women often suggested that there would be an appetite or demand for their services among female patients, who might be unwilling to confide in, or be examined/ treated by, male doctors. A lead article in the Lancet poured scorn on this proposal, insisting “women hate one another, often at first sight, with a rancour of which men can form only a faint conception”. (“The Medical Education of Women”, Lancet, 7 May 1870.)
- Patient confidentiality will go to pot: In the words of a laywoman correspondent who signed herself ‘Mater’, “morally, women are not fitted to be doctors, because they cannot (even the best of them) hold their tongues.” (“Correspondence: A Lady on Lady Doctors”, Lancet, 7 May 1870.)
- In fact, medical immorality will reign… “Modern medical women are doing more to degrade and lower the standard of the profession than any body of medical men have ever done, for they are at the present time seeking to attend midwifery for a fee of 5s.” Clearly Albert S. Morton, correspondent to the Lancet, hasn’t heard of Dr Pritchard… (“Correspondence…”, Lancet, 16 November 1895.)
- Sometimes, only a man can: “Every one knows that there is an abundance of cases of disease where a physician absolutely cures, not by his pathological knowledge, nor yet by his acquaintance with medicines […] but […] by the prestige of his mere presence; by being able to ‘put his foot down’; in one word, by being a – man.” (“Lady Doctors”, Medical Press and Circular, 23 February 1870.)
- Women will need it mansplained: Deploring women’s lack of “mechanical aptitude”, a so-called ‘Dispassionate Observer’ reasoned, “they never know why they have failed until they have asked some man”. (Quoted in “The Woman as a Physician”, Medical Press and Circular, 6 April 1892.)
- Just imagine what might happen to the Lancet: “You would perhaps be tempted to sacrifice dignity to popularity and insert a weekly article on Fashions and perhaps also a column of Gossip, to please you numerous feminine readers.” (Correspondence from F. Lucas Benham, Lancet, 7 December 1895.)
5 thoughts on “Why Women Shouldn’t be Doctors (According to Victorian medical men)”
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I always try to read things like this without bringing 21st century attitudes with me, but number 10 is an absolute corker. It is so difficult to imagine that such an opinion would be stated seriously one can only hope Mr. Beham’s tongue was firmly in cheek whilst writing.
Absolutely! I try my best to avoid passing value judgements in my research, but have to confess that the woman-doctor debates have really tested me!
How things have changed. Having been unlucky enough to have developed cancer in both testicles I found myself treated almost entirely by women – the oncologist, the surgeon who did the bilateral orchiectomy, the nurses. The doctors of old were probably rolling in their graves with embarrassment.
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