Fantastic Finds for Friday: Foundation of the RCOG and Equality of the Sexes!

As an Archivist, I just love those moments when I come across something in the collection which makes me think ‘YES!!’ It could be a quote which totally sums up the period of that particular collection, or a series of letters between two Fellows of the College which suddenly give a clue about some rumoured or hazy subject. And since the purpose of this blog was always to share anything exciting which I come across, I thought I would start off 2014 with a little nugget I came across in the past week.

My new project for this year is to catalogue the papers of Sir William Fletcher Shaw, co-founder of the College, first Honorary Secretary, and President between 1938 and 1942. So far, the papers have all been correspondence between Fletcher Shaw and eminent obstetricians and gynaecologists of the early 1920s concerning the establishment of the college. Sir Comyns Berkeley, John Shields Fairbairn, Victor Bonney, Sir Eardley Holland – within the correspondence is documented all their opinions about the necessity of a new College for the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology (positive and negative!).

There have been so many letters which have caught my attention so far – details of the dispute between Comyns Berkeley and co-founder, Professor William Blair-Bell which threatened to scupper the whole project at the last minute in 1929; suspected underhand moves from the President of the Royal College of Physicians; and the sheer exasperation of the lawyer appointed to oversee the process, Oswald Hempson. The correspondence which I’m bringing you today occurred at a time when the process of developing the College looked fairly straight forward, before obstacles were planted in the way, and thoughts were turning towards drawing up lists of obstetricians and gynaecologists to be invited to become Members and Fellows, and also contenders for roles on the new Council and as President.

Dame Josephine Barnes
Dame Josephine Barnes

In a letter to Comyns Berkeley of 29 June 1927, Fletcher Shaw, while commenting on his disinclination to receive too much in the way of financial support from the newspaper proprietor, Lord Riddell, also touched on the subject of his female medical peers, saying ‘… nor do we want a lot of useless women foisted on to the Council merely because they are women. My own attitude towards women is that they should compete for professional posts on an equality with men and I am always strongly opposed to giving them posts merely because of their sex.’

It is possible to take this comment as negative, but I rather choose to see it as a cry for equality – something women in the medical profession have been calling for since before they were allowed admittance to the medical schools in the late nineteenth century. In a letter a couple of months later, Fletcher Shaw rather substantiated this by calling for the respected Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Louise McIlroy to join the new College’s Council ‘to represent the women, as I feel we must show from the commencement that they are included in the scheme and I think she would make a useful member.’

This piece has been made even more significant for me by the recent reshuffling of officer roles and governance at the College. The RCOG currently has two women serving as Honorary Officers, the latest to be appointed being Professor Lesley Regan, Vice President Strategic Development. This role replaces the more traditional Honorary Treasurer, a post which was filled by none other than above-said Comyns Berkeley when the College began in 1929. These female Officers join the small group of ladies who have served the College as Officers since the first female President, Dame Hilda Lloyd in 1949: Dame Josephine Barnes, Aileen Dickins, Mary Anderson, Heather Mellows and Maggie Blott. With just under half of the current membership being female, we look forward to seeing more women at the top of the profession!

Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist


One Comment Add yours

  1. Paul C says:

    Thanks for posting these interesting heritage items, Penny. Always an enjoyable read!

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