Revolution in the air

This week, as part of our regular outreach work, Laura gave a talk to Corstorphine Women’s Guild, focusing on the role of women at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) in the period 1870-1950. This was a time which saw huge changes in medicine, and with the opening of the then brand new building at Lauriston Place in 1879, the Hospital was at the forefront of healthcare in Edinburgh. At this time, not one, but two revolutions were underway for women associated with the Infirmary: radical changes to nursing and the challenge for women to receive medical training.

Florence Nightingale’s Training School for Nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital in London was opened in 1860. It was a step which introduced a greater degree of professionalism to nursing, turning it into a career for educated women. There was a movement to formalise procedures and create high standards for all nurses to attain. Taking note of these changes, the managers of the RIE instituted a probationary period of training and a higher wage to attract “a better class of woman” to the profession. A Lady Superintendent of Nurses, Elizabeth Barclay, was appointed in 1872, and the RIE Nurse Training School was founded in the same year. The School gained an excellent training reputation, and RIE-trained nurses went on to take up positions the world over.

Whilst these changes in nursing were taking place, another set of women were fighting hard to overcome institutional barriers. Female medical students, recently given permission to receive a medical education at the University of Edinburgh in 1869, were effectively prevented from completing their training when the RIE refused to allow women the clinical instruction necessary for qualification. Whilst a wider public debate raged on the issue, Peter Bell, clerk to the managers sent a letter to all medical and surgical staff asking whether they were in favour of admitting female students on the same terms, and at the same times, as male students. Of the 19 responses we hold in the Archive, only 3 were in favour. William Walker’s letter (below) typifies the response of the majority; not only did he think that examination by a mixed class of students would be “repugnant to patients” but also that “many examinations and operations are offensive in nature and could not be undertaken before a mixed class without violating the feelings of propriety and decorum”. 
William Walker's letter
Despite this, in December 1872, the Board passed a motion to allow female matriculated students of the University to receive clinical instruction but at a separate hour to the male students and only in certain wards.  However, they were not permitted to view post-mortems, to see major surgical operations nor to act as clerks and dressers. Not to be deterred, an increasing number of women went on to gain medical degrees.