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Women's participation in Scottish medicine and Surgery: An examination of women's need to create their own spaces to thrive in the medical profession.

Molly Finlay

Economic and Social History


Year of study:

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This research highlights the successful careers of twentieth-century female surgeons Gertrude Herzfeld and Caroline Doig. As the first practicing female surgeon in Scotland, Herzfeld contributed to the conception of paediatric surgery as a speciality, blazing the trail for future female surgeons such as Doig, who later became the first female elected to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Council. Though pivotal characters in Scottish medicine and surgery, Herzfeld and Doig are overlooked by traditional literature dedicated to prominent medical men, or overtly feminist women such as suffragist physician, Elsie Inglis. This research aims to emphasise both Herzfeld and Doig’s significance to medical history, illustrating how they forged success in the surgical sphere by developing and practicing within their own female-led ‘spaces’.
The research studies the biography of Gertrude Herzfeld (1890-1981) compiled using archival data, as well as the autobiography of Caroline Doig (1938-2019), Enilorac: Hands of a Lady. By analysing the lives and careers of Herzfeld and Doig, I found that women entering the twentieth-century medical sphere adapted to organisational barriers in medicine by creating and occupying spaces and specialities that were directly linked to the care of women and children: for example, paediatric surgery. This research highlights the importance of female-led spaces to women’s professional success, as well as the way in which relationships to male figures impacted Herzfeld and Doig’s career trajectories.
Ultimately, this research illustrates changes to women’s access to medical education throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century. Studies conducted as recently as 2018 show that organisational barriers in surgery continue to create a ‘glass ceiling’, preventing the professional advancement of female surgeons. This highlights the importance of recognising historical experiences in order to inform our present and future.

I am in my fourth and final year of my undergraduate degree in Economic and Social History with Social and Public Policy.

Throughout my studies in history, I have developed a keen interest in both women's and medical history. I particularly enjoy studying elements of history that include anatomy and pathology, and have spent a great deal of time observing curious specimens at Edinburgh's Surgeons Hall as well as Glasgow's Hunterian Museum.

Inspired by collections such as these, I have recently completed my dissertation which examines women's participation in Scottish Medicine and Surgery. This research and my findings have inspired my presentation today.

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