A special contribution: 125 years of women in medical science
In 1887, while women were still denied the right to vote and had only just been given the right to own land (if they were married of course), seven women began their medical degrees at the Melbourne Medical School (MMS), the first women to do so.
Times have changed since then, however, and for the past three years women have outnumbered men in the medical school, with 53 per cent of medical graduates being female.
These days, many women wouldn’t think twice about studying medicine, with many assuming senior positions (both academic and professional) in medical faculties. But we should not forget the resolve and fearlessness of a handful of women in the late 1800s who fought their way into the profession and created a career path followed by generations of inspiring women over the past 125 years.
Clara Stone and Margaret Whyte were the first two women to gain medical degrees and over the next five years, 12 more women graduated. All over the world the medical profession had been male-dominated and these brave women faced many challenges in their pursuit of winning acceptance and respect in the medical profession.
In 1895 the Victorian Medical Women’s Society was founded by women graduates of the MMS, the chief objective being to ‘effect a closer relationship between medical women graduates and undergraduates and to advance the knowledge to further their interests generally’. This courageous group of women went on to found the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Babies, the first hospital to be run for women by women.
Dr Whyte, one of the first two women to graduate from the MMS, and one of the first three female graduates to gain registration to practice medicine in Australia, was refused a position as a resident medical officer at the Melbourne hospital, since she was a female. She didn’t give up though; instead she joined the all-male resident medical staff at the Women’s Hospital.
Alfreda Gamble, who graduated in 1895, fought the same battle, although unlike Whyte, she was successful in becoming a resident medical officer at the Melbourne hospital the following year. She did, however, face much opposition and hostility from both staff and patients, who wrote to the newspapers questioning the ‘fortitude of ladies when confronted with unsightly injuries’.
Graduating from the MMS in 1922, Kate Campbell became one of the first female resident medical staff at the Children’s Hospital and the first honorary pediatrician at the Women’s Hospital. Dr Campbell went on to discover the connection between high concentrations of oxygen delivered to premature babies in humidicribs and consequent blindness. She won a Britannica Award for her study into reactions of newborn infants to various types of stress.
In 1966 the University of Melbourne conferred Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees on Dr Campbell and her fellow 1922 graduate Jean Macnamara: the first time the University had awarded the degree to women, with the exception of royalty.
Both Dr Campbell and Dr Macnamara were pioneers, not only in medical science but also in opening up senior positions for women who came after them. Sir William Upjohn once boasted that when he got to heaven and St Peter asked him what he had done to deserve entry, he would only need to say: “I got Jean Macnamara and Kate Campbell on at the Children’s”.