Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine at the Royal College of Physicians from 19th September 2018 to 18th January 2019

Exhibition Review – ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine at the Royal College of Physicians from 19th September 2018 to 18th January 2019


England and Wales’ oldest royal medical college, the Royal College of Physicians, marks its 500th anniversary with a major new exhibition that explores prevailing notions of female participation in the medical professions and wider society. The exhibition entitled ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine runs from 19 September 2018 to 18 January 2019.

The exhibition provides evidence that female apothecaries, herbalists, writers of medicinal recipes, midwives  and doctors  have all worked within a male-dominated world for many centuries.

The exhibition uses a range of rare and personal objects, from medieval records to medical equipment, letters to portraits, to tell the story of some Britain’s earliest female clinicians. From 13th century Leominster is a charter asserting the existence of a set of medical siblings: one brother and his two sisters, the women doctors Solicita and Matilda. Elizabethan England was home to Alice Leevers, whose trial and punishment on several occasions for illegally practising medicine, is recorded in a section of the Royal College of Physicians’ own annals on view for the first time ever.  

The 17th century offers an array of fascinating figures and artefacts. Medical recipe books by, amongst others, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent and the mysteriously named ‘Madame Pyne’, offer some insights as does an advertisement from the 1680s for the services and products of ‘Agnodjice: the woman physician’. Early evidence of the systematic exclusion of women from the medical profession comes in an act of parliament from 1511, it features women amongst the ‘great multitude of ignorant persons’ that illegally carried out ‘the Science and Cunning of Physick and Surgery’.

However, it was in the 19th century that the pressure to allow women to be allowed to enter the medical professions began to form with a number of female pioneers. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is one of the best known of these reformers and is widely thought to be the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain. Her original certificate of 1865 provides evidence of passing exams but many female doctors like Anderson, Elizabeth Blackwell the Anglo-American clinician who was the first woman included on the Medical Register in 1859 and Sophia Jex Blake often received their formal qualifications as doctors from overseas. The three women eventually came together to establish the London School of Medicine for Women which opened in 1874 as the first institution of its kind in the world.

The fight for recognition in the medical profession for females often mirrored the fight for wider rights and the exhibition features a section that illustrates some of these issues. A never previously displayed letter from Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of Elizabeth) to her employers warns that she may face arrest and imprisonment on account of her suffragette activities.  In the exhibition is a handkerchief embroidered by suffragette inmates at Holloway Prison in 1912 that includes the name of Dr Alice Kerr, a GP.

The final word goes to the voices of medical women from the last 100 years, a series of  audio testimonies, many captured by the Royal College of Physicians’ ongoing oral history project which allows the women to describe their own experiences of 20th century and contemporary medicine.

This fascinating exhibition provides plenty of evidence that women in many ways were involved in medical practices over the last 500 years. It was when medicine became known a profession that there was considerable opposition to female participation. Even then women found a way around some of these restrictions. The exhibition tells the remarkable story of Dr James Barry, who rose to be one of the British Army’s most senior medical officers. However, Barry was born Margaret Anne Bulkley and only began living as a man from late teenage years, possibly in order to secure a career in medicine.

This small free exhibition is located in the Royal College of Physicians building near Regent’s Park and is open from Monday to Friday from 19th September 2018 to 18th January 2019.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the Royal College of Physicians website here

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