Posted on behalf of Heidi Ledford
Visitors stepping into the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London are normally greeted by the sombre stares of imposing men, in portraits lining the walls. From today, women outshine them, in 26 photographic portraits of modern female clinicians ranged along the central stairwell. Each holds an image of a historical figure who inspired them.
The exhibition, Women in Medicine: A Celebration, comes as the RCP — which accredits UK physicians and represents over 30,000 doctors globally — readies for its 500th birthday in 2018. Over that time, it has had just three female presidents: unsurprising, given that women could not join until 1909.
The contemporary clinicians in the portraits are esteemed in their own right, and there is still plenty of trail left for them to blaze. But it is the historical photos that drew my eye.
Recent years have brought a welcome spate of books, movies and exhibitions dedicated to honouring pioneering women in science. The best of these, like the book and film Hidden Figures, draw attention to forgotten achievements and struggles, and reveal a history that had, shockingly, gone untold. More often, such collections tend to sample from the same pantheon. And although Marie Curie and Rosalyn Franklin deserve their fame, I’m often left with the feeling that we are overlooking important contributions from others.
The RCP show steps outside this elite circle. Here is Helen Boyle, one of the first women psychiatrists in Britain, who led the charge for early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders near the end of the nineteenth century. Holding her photo is Fiona Caldicott, a past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and perhaps best known for her work on the 1997 Caldicott Report, a guidance document about protecting confidential patient information.
Jane Dacre, the current president of the RCP, selected physician Sheila Sherlock, who founded hepatology, the study of the liver. According to an online biography connected to the exhibition, Sherlock said that she opted to study that organ because “no one else was doing it”.
All these women racked up notable achievements — and overcame tremendous obstacles to do so. But too many of the write-ups on the accompanying website read like CVs: it is sometimes difficult to glimpse the person behind the achievements, no doubt due to limited space and historical records. Still, there is plenty to whet the appetite. For example, I’m eager to learn more about the friendship with a dying man that led Cicely Saunders to found the modern hospice movement.
Happily, the exhibition’s brief biography is enough to reveal why Anandibai Gopal Joshi — among the first Indian women to practice Western medicine — chose to enter medicine. Married at age 9 and a mother at 14, Joshi’s child died ten days after he was born due to inadequate medical care. “My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves,” Joshi wrote in her application to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. (Her photograph is held by Asha Kasliwal, who trained in Mumbai and is now president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare.)
For perspective, a trip downstairs to the Treasures Room, featuring medical tools from past centuries, is fascinating. Among them is a ‘modesty doll’. In a time when clinicians were all men, women would point to areas on the doll corresponding to the body part in question to describe their symptoms.
In a nearby display case hangs the ornate formal robe, heavy with real gold thread, of the RCP’s president, next to a photo of Dacre wearing it. The robe cannot be shortened, and positioning it on Dacre’s petite frame took some doing. Yet you’d never know it: it fits her perfectly.
Heidi Ledford is a reporter for Nature in London. She tweets at @heidiledford.
Women in Medicine runs at the Royal College of Physicians until 19 January 2018.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.