Ironically, many civilisations relied on medicine women for their knowledge of herbs, childbirth, and cures for common ailments, but were quick to attack the same women for superstitious and backward reasons. The closest women could get to a medical profession was through nursing, or midwifery. Banned from medical schools, many were forbidden from realising their dreams, but not all gave up so easily. It took centuries, and by the time of the Industrial Revolution, women were inching their way towards becoming professional doctors. Here are some female doctors who broke the glass ceiling during their time:
1. Margaret Anne Bulkley
Perhaps most bizarrely illustrating the lengths of which women had to go through to become accepted in a traditionally man’s world is Margaret Anne Bulkley (1789-1865). She was born in Ireland to a middle-class family, destined to marry or become a governess but seized an extraordinary step by refusing to comply. She took on the identity of her recently deceased brother, James Barry, and studied medicine in Edinburgh, a bastion of medical training at that time. Later apprenticing herself to Dr Astley Cooper – who himself earned the devotion of the monarch when he operated on George VI – Dr James Barry as she was now known, established herself as an army doctor, travelling to the four corners of the globe.
She became one of the first surgeons to perform a caesarean section in 1826, and was also forward-thinking in other ways: she refused to practice bloodletting, instead advocating fresh air, diet and exercise for her sickly patients. All the time, she was dressed as a man, dying too as Dr James Barry, of dysentery in 1865. Only when her body was prepared for the funeral did the public find out about her true identity.
2. Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923) and Anandi Gopal Joshi (1865 -1887)
They were born in India and hold the joint title of the first female Indian doctors. They graduated in 1886, but in different countries. Their plights were similar though, as both faced opposition from all sections of conservative Indian society. Dr Ganguly graduated with a medical degree from Bengal Medical College, and Dr Joshi did so at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. Dr Ganguly furthered her education in the United Kingdom, and later worked in what is now Pakistan’s largest women’s hospital, Lady Dufferin, before opting for private practice.
Dr Ganguly was not content with breaking barriers only in the medical world. A feminist, she was the first woman speaker at the Indian National Congress (1890), first chairperson of the Transvaal Indian Association (1907), and was active in promoting the rights of women labourers. Dr Joshi though was not to be as prolific as her associate. Contracting tuberculosis, she succumbed to the disease a year after graduation while a doctor at the Albert Edward Hospital in India. However, her achievements have marked her out for millennia – the ‘Joshee’ crater on the planet Venus has been named in her honour.
3. Lee-Sun Chau (1890-1979)
Although Tan Yunxian (1461-1554) is credited to be China’s first female doctor, it is Lee-Sun Chau (1890-1979) who became the first Chinese woman to practise Western medicine. She graduated from Hackett Medical College for Women, the first of its kind in China, in the 1910s, and established herself as a doctor at the David Gregg Hospital for Women in Guangzhou. Her female descendants are keeping her legacy alive with bold achievements of their own: her daughter became a nurse and served in the American army during the Second World War, and her granddaughter became one of four students to become the first women to be awarded a Bachelor of Science degree from the California Institute of Technology.
4. Ogino Gingko (1851-1913)
Ogino Gingko was the first woman to practise Western medicine in Japan and she was not afraid of social censure. Divorcing her husband when she discovered he had given her gonorrhoea, she was hesitant to seek treatment from doctors, who were invariably male. The social stigma surrounding such diseases was also significant. It was then that Gingko realised women might be avoiding treatment as a result of these two factors and decided to become Japan’s first female doctor.
Studying at Tokyo Women’s Normal School and later, Juntendo University, despite resistance from almost all, including her own family, she graduated in 1882. Her attempts to gain entry for the medical practitioner’s exams lasted three years: she was allowed to sit for them after many petitions, after which she became a licensed doctor. Keeping true to her goals, she specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology, setting up the Ogino Hospital in 1886.
5. Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi OFR, MBE (1910-1971)
Elizabeth became Nigeria’s first female doctor in 1938, when she graduated with a medical degree from the University of Dublin. Dr Awoyili was also member of the Royal College of Doctors, and the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the United Kingdom on top of being the first female in Nigeria to be allowed a medical practice. She started life as a doctor at Massey Street Hospital in Lagos and by 1962, was designated as senior specialist gynaecologist and obstetrician by the Nigerian government. She was a prominent philanthropist too, showing initiative in women’s causes throughout her career.
6. Lee Choo Neo (1895-1947)
Lee Choo Neo became Singapore’s first female doctor after graduating from the Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School (later the King Edward VII College of Medicine). She gained her medical license in 1919 and became the first woman to practise medicine here. Three earlier graduates had somehow not followed through after their graduation, and the reasons are unknown.
Initially, Dr Lee was in charge of the women’s’ wards at the Singapore General Hospital but she set up a private practice in 1930. Located in Bras Basah Road, Lee Dispensary was sought as a maternity clinic. Like the other doctors in this list, she too was a strong advocate of women’s rights, founding the Chinese Ladies' Association in 1915, and worked with the Straits government in matters relating to matrimony and divorce in the Chinese community. Dr Lee is an inductee of the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame. MIMS
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