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In a large park in the small city of Perth in the heart of Scotland there is a play area for young children dedicated to the memory of Charlotte Douglas (1894-1979). A senior medical officer for Scotland, her work led to the 1937 Maternity Services (Scotland) Act, which legislated for a comprehensive midwifery service decades before the same thing was provided elsewhere in the UK. This resulted in a 1000 per cent increase in the number of hospital beds available to pregnant women and is credited with a substantial drop in maternal mortality.
Or travel 110 miles or so north from Perth to Inverness, and admire a monument in the Old High Church; this commemorates Jane Waterston (1843-1905), a missionary who was one of the first 14 students at the London School of Medicine for Women, who later became the first female physician in South Africa. She set up a free dispensary in Cape Town for women and children and was a proponent of a non-racially segregated South Africa.
You could also make your way to Cullen in the North East of Scotland, and pop into the Thomson Memorial Centre, which tells the story of Margaret Thomson (1902-1982), a doctor who in the Second World War survived a shipwreck to be captured into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where she used her expertise to keep fellow inmates alive.
Or then again, maybe not: none of these memorials actually exist, although the women they commemorate most certainly did. Their stories – and many others like them – are recounted in Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland, in which author Sara Sheridan has written a guidebook to a Scotland where women’s achievements are commemorated in the built environment in the same way as men’s are. Inspired by the feminist Rebecca Solnit’s project to rename all the New York subway stations after inspirational women, Sheridan creates heritage trails with statues, plaques, streets and buildings, all dedicated to or in the name of highly-achieving women.
Not surprisingly, a good number of the stories are about doctors, from the relatively well-known, such as Elsie Inglis (1864-1917), who ignored advice from Army top brass to ‘Go home, dear lady, and sit still’ to set up field hospitals in the First World War, to the lesser known examples above.
Reading the book – or rather, flicking through it, because it’s a pretty dense (although very readable) 450-pager, one can’t help wondering what might have been if women’s achievements were given equal prominence to those of men. The book imagines statues to pioneering medical women in Edinburgh for example, describing bronze monuments to Gertrude Herzfield (1890-1981), the first surgeon in Scotland, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) of birth control fame, and Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the founder of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ – the first medical students enrolled at a British university. The location of these fictional statues (called Charlotte Street in the book, although it is clearly based on George Street) is particularly sharp given that it is just a block away from an actual impressive bronze statue of the pioneering obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson at the west end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street.
The very fact that the book has been published, however, suggests that the tide may be beginning to turn, and the achievements of women be brought in from the margins. This year, for example, as the latest edition of The Doctor magazine recounts, the Edinburgh Seven are to be recognised at last with the posthumous awarding of the medical degrees they weren’t allowed to receive in the 19th century.
Their lives and work are actually being depicted in plays and exhibitions and other events, while those of Inglis and other female doctors who formed part of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, played a part in events to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Indeed this is continuing; for example [email protected] Fringe will host Hallowed Ground – Women Doctors in War at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a show that brings to life the contribution of Australian doctors to this endeavour.
There are some who believe that there are bigger issues than whether women have buildings named after them or statues or plaques to mark their achievements – such as the continuing gender pay gap, for example, or the relative paucity of women doctors in exalted positions (although this is beginning to change).
But as was clear to me when I interviewed young female medical students for the article about the Edinburgh Seven, actually seeing and hearing the stories of pioneering women can be a real inspiration when you’re setting out on a career. As the saying goes, you’ve got to see it to be it.
Living just up the road from Perth myself, I feel almost disappointed that I can’t go and pay tribute to Charlotte Douglas in the play area that (fictionally) bears her name, and I am determined to seek out some of the monuments that actually do exist. Here’s hoping there will soon be more, because there are many, many stories that deserve to be told.
Jennifer Trueland is the Scottish correspondent for The Doctor, the BMA’s membership magazine
Where are the Women? A Guide to an Imagined Scotland by Sara Sheridan was published on 9 May by Historic Environment Scotland, price £16.99
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