Women in their unnamed thousands should feature in any complete history of medicine. But alas, formal recognition of their innumerable contributions is lacking. Since time immemorial their work as midwives, herbalists and nurses have eased the bodily pains of their patients, yet their ministrations have brought them no lasting fame or fortune. Forced into the background as the field of medicine marched to modernity, these women found themselves formally barred from the profession in Europe in 1400. At that time it was decreed that only those who held a university degree could practice. And with women not allowed to attend university, well, there was simply no way in.
When women were allowed into universities centuries later, they faced often bitter opposition from their male counterparts. An example is the trials and tribulations of the young Dagmar Berne. In 1886 the clever and high achieving Berne won entry to the University of Sydney. But she found her efforts to study stymied by a hostile Dean of Medicine who failed her in her second year. She finally gained her qualification from the University of London some years later, but not without considerable hardship and sacrifice.
Australia’s first qualified female doctors emerged successfully in 1891 when The University of Melbourne graduated two female doctors, Dr. Clara Stone and Dr. Margaret Whyte. They were joined that same year by Dr. Laura M. Fowler (University of Adelaide). These pioneering women were not celebrated in their time, but their efforts to overcome considerable barriers paved the way for more female success. In fact, as more women graduated from medicine, some banded together to create the almost entirely female-run Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne.
Women have since contributed widely and uniquely to the medical profession. They have also pushed further into specialised fields, bringing profound change to the way some conditions are treated. Beginning with Elizabeth Kenny, the nurse who revolutionised the treatment for polio, women have found ways and means to make their mark. From the Nobel prize-winning Dr. Elizabeth H Blackburn and her discovery of telomeres, to Dr Nikki Stamp, Australia’s only female cardiothoracic surgeon, women have demonstrated that they have every right to wield a stethoscope and make their mark in medicine.
Main image: National Cancer Institute