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Trailblazing female doctors who lit the path for the rights of women

In her series on Irish doctors who have left their mark on history, Bette Browne looks at the lives of two doctor-suffragettes and their contribution to women’s rights

Pioneering female doctors who left their mark on Irish medical history were at the same time blazing a trail through politics and advancing women’s voting rights in the suffragette movement.

The story of doctor and politician Kathleen Lynn (1874-1955) has been widely chronicled but less well known is the trailblazing legacy of her contemporaries, Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman (1872-1943) and Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell (1862-1934).

Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman

Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman is one of eight historical female leaders in healthcare commemorated in Women on Walls at RCSI in partnership with Accenture, a new landmark portrait collection which aims to enhance the visibility of female leaders in healthcare to inspire future generations. She was a doctor, suffragist and elected councillor.

Mary Somerville Parker Strangman was born on March 16, 1872, at Carriganore, Killotteran, Co Waterford, the sixth of seven children of Thomas Handcock Strangman and Sarah White Hawkes. She was educated at home with her four brothers and two sisters.

Along with her sister Lucia, Mary became interested in medicine at an early age. In 1891, when she was 19 and Lucia was 21, they both took their first steps towards a career in medicine. That year, they entered the RCSI, which, just six years earlier, in 1885, had become the first medical school in Britain and Ireland to admit women on equal terms with men and allow them to take its examination.

This ground-breaking move meant that Mary was entering medicine at a time when historical barriers to women in the profession were beginning to fall. Early Irish women medical students usually attended the London School of Medicine for Women, while others went to Glasgow, Edinburgh and continental Europe. In Dublin, a few attended small private schools such as the Carmichael and Cecilia Street schools, although they were not allowed to sit examinations or obtain degrees.

But in 1877, five years after Mary was born, the King’s and Queen’s College of Ireland, which later became the RCPI, became the first body in Britain and Ireland to allow women to register — but only just. By a majority of only one vote, the College made the historic decision on January 10, 1877.

Women could now sit their examinations, register and get a licence to practise medicine. So in 1885, when the RCSI agreed to extend its educational facilities to women and to recognise the examination results from the London School of Medicine for Women, it was a major advance. One year later, the RCPI and the RCSI agreed to a conjoint degree that was registrable.

Mary and her sister received their licences in 1896. After her graduation, Mary spent some years in England, first as a clinical assistant at the Northumberland county asylum, and later as assistant anaesthetist and assistant physician-accoucheuse  (obstetrician) at a private hospital for women in London, where she also lectured in midwifery to student nurses.

In 1902, she was awarded the fellowship of the RCSI, becoming the second Irishwoman to achieve this distinction — the first was Emily Winifred Dickson in 1893. In 1903, Dr Strangman set up practice in her native Waterford and worked in a voluntary capacity with local female charities.

She also engaged in experimental work in the treatment of alcoholism and morphine addiction, and published two articles on the subject: ‘Morphinomania treated successfully with atropine and strychnine’ (British Medical Journal, 1907) and ‘The atropine treatment of morphinomania and inebriety’ (Journal of Mental Science, 1908).

Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association

Dr Strangman also belonged to a band of Irish female doctors at the turn of the 20th century whose consciences had been stirred by the poor living conditions, limited rights and the lack of opportunities for most women in Ireland. Many were subsequently drawn to the political arena to campaign for social, as well as medical, advancements for women. 

Like a number of these early Irish women doctors, Dr Strangman became a member of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. “Having proved themselves the equals of their male counterparts, medical women were acutely aware of the injustice of their unenfranchised status. In addition, their work experience convinced them that women’s suffrage was an essential tool of social reform,” RCSI notes in a profile of Dr Strangman.

Dr Strangman was undoubtedly aware of the success decades earlier of a major campaign, in which many of the early suffrage pioneers were involved, that sought to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869.

In an effort to combat the spread of venereal diseases, especially among members of the armed forces, the British government introduced stringent controls on women suspected of prostitution. The areas of concern in Ireland were the Curragh Camp, Cork and Cobh. Any woman under suspicion could be forced to undergo a medical examination to see if she had a sexually-transmitted disease and could face imprisonment if she refused to be examined. Infected women were sent to ‘lock hospitals’ until they were cured. Lock hospitals, which specialised in treating sexually-transmitted diseases, operated in Britain and its colonies from the 18th century to the 20th. The term ‘lock hospitals’ originates from their use as leprosariums, in which the patients were kept in restraints.

Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts

There was no similar check for men and those who opposed these acts pointed out that they encouraged the double standard of sexual morality by enforcing it for women but not for men, and that they interfered with the civil liberties of women.

In England, Josephine Butler set up the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1869 and an Irish branch was organised in 1870. They held meetings, lobbied MPs, went on deputations and sent out petitions. The Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed in 1886.

Belfast-based Isabella Tod, educator and reformer, and Dublin-based suffragette Anna Haslam, were active in the Ladies’ National Association that was founded in 1869 to campaign for repeal of the Acts.

“Because of her work on the campaign, Tod became convinced of the necessity of female participation in the public realm, and in 1872 she set up the first Irish suffrage group, the Northern Ireland Society for Women’s Suffrage Committee,” according to research by Dr Mary McAuliffe, who lectures on gender history at UCD Women’s Studies. “In Dublin, in 1876, Anna Haslam founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society, which later became known as the Irishwomen’s Suffrage and Local Government.”

A contemporary of Dr Strangman, the English suffragist and political theorist Teresa Billington-Greig believed that women doctors were generally better qualified to treat women because they could empathise with problems specific to women, although some years earlier the British Medical Journal questioned whether the female mind was intelligent enough for medical study. However, as Dr Laura Kelly points out in Irish Medical Women c.1880s-1920s, certain members of the Irish medical profession appear to have disagreed with the views expressed in the BMJ. A Dr Stewart, Secretary of the Irish Medical Schools and Graduates Association, claimed in 1892 that his organisation had been the first to admit women as members and that he felt that the British Medical Association would also benefit from the introduction of women.

“The First World War is said to have represented a distinct watershed for women doctors in both Britain and Ireland. As in other spheres of work, women became recognised as a valuable contribution to the workforce,” Dr Kelly notes.

Advocates of women doctors claimed that qualified women had the right to take an active part in the national emergency as the professional equals of male doctors, both at home and abroad. Medical journals such as The Lancet said that these years represented an exceptional time for women to enter medicine as a result of the great shortage of doctors because of the war.

Suffragists seized on this change in attitudes to make demands for an increased role for women in the professions, including in medicine. “A distinct change in attitude became discernible as the woman doctor was no longer looked at with suspicion and women doctors came to be of crucial importance in managing hospitals at the front, as well as at home, during wartime,” according to Dr Kelly.

Dr Strangman took a very direct role in the Irish suffrage movement, Dr Kelly points out. In February 1912, she was part of a deputation of five Irish women who waited on Mr Augustine Birrell, then Chief Secretary for Ireland. At the meeting with Mr Birrell, Dr Strangman asked for the Parliamentary franchise for women.

“In her view, women had already proven their suitability to take part in the legislation of the country through their work on district councils and voluntary work in charitable associations. She felt that ‘to make a good nation, they must have good women, and they could not have good women while they were in subjection,’” Dr Kelly said.

Dr Strangman was also one of six delegates at a mass meeting of Irish suffragettes on June 1, 1912, to demonstrate their determination to secure the vote. She also spoke at a meeting of the Irish Suffrage Federation in October that year.

Dr Strangman was attached briefly to the Irish Women’s Franchise League, according to the RCSI. “She established a branch of its more moderate offshoot, the Munster Women’s Franchise League, in Waterford, and was on the executive committee of the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation from 1911 until 1917.”

WNHA

Some years earlier, in 1908, she was a co-founder of the Waterford branch of the Women’s National Health Association of Ireland (WNHA). Established with government support the previous year, the association’s aim was to mobilise the women of Ireland in a nationwide health-promotion campaign. Tuberculosis, the country’s principal killer disease, was the main target.

Late in 1911, when women became eligible for election to county borough councils, the Waterford WNHA adopted a new strategy. Seeing the authorities’ poor investment in sanitation, Dr Strangman stood for election on a public health platform and went on to make history by becoming Waterford’s first female councillor when she was elected in January 1912.

“At a time when the national question was the primary concern of most local representatives, she highlighted public health issues, especially housing and tuberculosis,” according to her RCSI profile. “Her position was complicated by her connections with the suffrage movement and by her resulting hostility towards John Redmond, MP for Waterford, leader of the Irish parliamentary party and an anti-suffragist.” 

Faced with the welfare problems resulting from the 1914-18 war, Dr Strangman played a leading role in uniting local voluntary organisations. She retired from public office in 1920. In 1923, she was appointed physician at Waterford County and City Infirmary. She continued in general practice until shortly before her death at her sister’s house in Dún Laoghaire on January 30, 1943.

Recognition

In 2018, a century after women in Ireland first won the right to vote, a cause for which Dr Strangman had campaigned so ardently, it was fitting that the people of her native Waterford decided to come together to honour Dr Strangman.

On March 7, on Parliament Street, where Dr Strangman was once a patron of a maternity hospital there, a Civic Trust blue plaque was unveiled to honour “Waterford’s first woman councillor, doctor, feminist, suffragette and public health activist”.

Also, RCSI recently unveiled eight new portraits of Irish historical female leaders in healthcare.  A portrait of Dr Strangman, which was painted by artist Mick O’Dea, was included the collection. The portraits are intended to honour pioneering achievements and to inspire future generations.

Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell

Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell

Like Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman, Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell (1862-1934), who was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in Ireland, went on to become a leading suffragette. She was born in Newry, Co Down, on Christmas Eve 1862 and, again like Dr Strangman, she also had a sister, Margaret, who became a doctor and was one of the first female general practitioners in Manchester.

In 1889, Elizabeth and Margaret entered the Faculty of Medicine along with three other female medical students for the 1889-90 session. They attended the Belfast Royal Hospital, which became the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the Belfast Union Hospital, which became the Belfast City Hospital.

Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell was one of the first women medical graduates of the Royal University of Ireland, taking her degree in 1893 and her name was included in the Medical Directory for Ireland on November 25 that year. She published ‘A Curious Condition of Placenta and Membranes’ in the Annual Report of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Medical Association for 1895-96.

In 1896, Dr Bell married Dr Hugh Fisher. They had one son, Hugo Bell Fisher, who later enrolled as a medical student at Queen’s University. But in 1901 tragedy struck the family. On October 18, Dr Hugh Fisher died of typhoid fever. The couple had been married for just five years.

Dr Bell became a general practitioner, working from Great Victoria Street, Belfast, where her patients were mostly women and young children. She was Honorary Physician to the Women’s Maternity Home in Belfast, the Belfast Babies Home and Training School and was also medical officer to the Malone Place Hospital.

She also became a keen advocate for the extension of voting rights to women and became a close friend of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement.

Dr Bell was noted for her involvement in the suffrage movement in the years before the First World War. Although the first suffrage society to be established in Belfast was in 1870, it was not until the early years of the 20th Century that it gained momentum in Ulster. In 1909, the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society changed its name to the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS), which was based in Belfast but had branches outside the city, Dr Shelagh-Mary Rea, the grand niece of Dr Bell’s husband, wrote in 2017 in The Ulster Medical Journal.

“Dr Bell became a friend and ally of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and Lady Balfour, who was also a prominent feminist figure of the time. In 1911, Dr Bell and Miss Margaret Robinson took part in WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) activities in London. On November 21, 1911, they were participating in a demonstration and were arrested for throwing stones through Swan and Edgar’s London department store windows. Dr Bell was subsequently imprisoned in Holloway Women’s Prison for this behaviour. There is no evidence that she engaged in any more violent or illegal acts which characterised the tactics of some suffragettes,” according to Dr Shelagh-Mary Rea. Dr Bell also acted as doctor for the suffragette prisoners in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Jail.

In 1916, Dr Bell was in the first group of women doctors to join the British Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and worked for a year as a civilian surgeon attached to the RAMC. Her salary was 24 shillings a day, including allowances, but excluding duty transport. A gratuity of £60 was awarded at the end of the contract. Dr Bell requested to work in Irish Command but no vacancies were available, so she was assigned to St Andrew’s Military Hospital, which treated thousands of injured men, including many from Gallipoli and Salonica campaigns.

In January 1917, Dr Bell attended the funeral in Malta of her fellow Irish doctor Isobel Addey Tate, who had earlier joined the Serbian Relief Fund in 1915, which set up dispensaries in Serbia to treat the local population. Disease was rife and it was while in Serbia that Dr Tate apparently contracted typhoid. In 1916, however, Dr Tate, like Dr Gould, volunteered for service with the RAMC and worked in the Military Hospital in Valletta, where she was in charge of the bacteriological unit. On January 28, 1917, Dr Tate died in Malta. She was just 40.

Describing her funeral on February 1, 1917, the Daily Malta Chronicle wrote: “The service, read with solemn impressiveness, being concluded, the usual three volleys were fired in the air, followed by the Last Post sounded by a trumpeter, which echoed sadly amidst the lonely surroundings.” Among the many wreaths, Dr Bell observed, was one inscribed simply: “In loving memory from her family at Ruskery, Donegall Park, Belfast, Ireland.”

Then, just 10 months after attending Dr Tate’s funeral, Dr Bell, now back in Ireland, received the most tragic news that any mother must suffer. On November 23, 1917, her only son, Hugo Bell Fisher, died from a shell splinter wound to his left thigh while serving with the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers in France. He was just 20 years old.

In Belfast, Dr Bell devoted most of her time to the welfare of children and women. She was honorary physician to the Women’s Maternity Home and the Babies’ Home, Belfast, and one of the medical officers appointed by the Belfast Corporation in connection with their babies’ clubs welfare scheme.

Soon, ill health compelled her to resign. On July 9, 1934, at the age of 71, the doctor aptly described as “a pioneer of the feminist movement in Ireland” died at her home at College Gardens, Belfast.

Plaque

Like Dr Strangman, Dr Bell’s role in medicine and as a champion of women’s rights has not been forgotten. On October 11, 2016, the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque to honour Dr Bell at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry.

“It was decided to place it at Daisy Hill Hospital because it occupies the site of the Newry Workhouse close to where Dr Bell was brought up and where her father worked. The workhouse was built in 1841 and functioned until 1948. It is quite possible that Dr Bell and her sister were inspired by the plight of the destitute inmates of the workhouse to devote their lives to the service of others,” Dr Shelagh-Mary Rea wrote in The Ulster Medical Journal.

“It was my privilege to be present at the unveiling of the blue plaque and to speak, as a relative, about Dr Bell’s life, history and achievements. Dr Bell was a truly remarkable woman, intelligent and courageous, whose life was marred by immense tragedy with the death of her husband and the loss of her son.

“She succeeded in medicine despite discrimination on the grounds of gender. Joining the profession in the first place was a major challenge and she, along with other women doctors during the First World War, were found to be competent, effective and resourceful. She was also a pioneer of the feminist movement in Ireland.”

 SOURCES: RCSI; Dictionary of Irish Biography Online; Dr Laura Kelly (2012) ‘Irish Medical Women c.1880s-1920s’; Dr Mary McAuliffe, lecturer on gender history at UCD Women’s Studies; History Ireland; British Medical Journal obituary of Dr Bell, July 21, 1934; ‘Discovering Women in Irish History’; British Army Medical Service and the Malta Garrison 1799-1979; Belfast News letter; The Ulster Medical Journal.

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