Volume 8 Number 8
August 13 - September 9 2012
The first seven women to enrol in the Melbourne Medical School were acutely aware of their struggle to gain admission to the ranks of medical practitioners in the 19th century. Not only did they need to achieve the academic standards required of their male counterparts, they also had to petition the University and the Medical Faculty, and make public appeals with arguments in favour of their admission.
Once admitted, though, only half the battle was won. The expense and the necessity of making special allowances for the ‘lady students’ in the medical course was warmly debated by the (male) University Council and Faculty throughout the first year of their admission until the women students took matters into their own hands and wrote to the Council setting out, quite clearly, their own position on the matter.
In their letter they asserted that ‘more than the mere removal of restrictions is … required’ and outlined a few special conditions they believed were necessary, even going so far as to threaten ‘discontinuing our work here if no such concessions can be granted to us’.
Fast-forward 125 years and as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations the Melbourne Medical School recently hosted ‘Passionate Minds: A Colloquium of Women in Medical Research’. The colloquium, convened to celebrate the important contributions and scientific achievements of women in medicine and medical research, attracted a large audience, and aimed to inspire a new generation of women to be ambitious and to see themselves in senior roles.
Headlined by Nobel Laureate Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, the program featured keynote addresses from prominent scientists who explored issues and strategies for women pursuing a career in medical science and short presentations from six early career researchers who sketched, with passion, the excitement they felt for their current research projects.
Elizabeth Blackburn took as her thesis that women do research differently and that, while capable of the linear, focused thinking that characterises male research science, they are also capable of more left-field thinking that can provide longer-term solutions to complex problems. For example, sometimes doing research part-time and alongside other commitments can encourage women to think differently about a problem.
Professor Ruth Bishop is best known for leading the team, which in collaboration with Ian Holmes at the University’s Department of Microbiology, discovered rotavirus, the major cause of gastroenteritis in children worldwide. She remembered finding a surprising amount of time in the day after her children were in bed and said of her work: “For a time, I fell in love with rotavirus. It was the last thing I thought of at night and the first thing I thought of in the morning”.
Paediatric neurologist at the University of Melbourne, Professor Ingrid Scheffer spoke about the rewards of clinical research. As a clinician she sees and helps many epilepsy patients but her medical research led to the identification of the first epilepsy-associated gene – helping far more people around the world than just the patients she sees. She is convinced women have a different approach to medical research: “They are interested in different aspects and have novel insights into research problems”.
With roles that have included directing the John Curtin School of Medical Research, chairing the Medical Research Committee of the NHMRC and the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Health Research, Professor Emeritus Judith Whitworth had sound advice for women considering mentorship and leadership roles. Mentors need first of all to be generous people and leaders need to actively promote colleagues while promoting and instilling core scientific values, she says: “A good leader acts as a role model, inspiring optimism and collaboration”.