To celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow (8 March), today’s Fantastic Find from the RCOG Archive brings you a letter from 1899 which gives a glimpse into the efforts of one woman to enter the medical profession.
The letter is a testimonial written for Harriet Bird by the Austrian gynaecologist and master of hysterectomy, Ernst Wertheim (1864-1920). Wertheim was head at the Elizabeth Hospital in Vienna in 1899 and had just performed the first full extended operation for hysterectomy the year before. Harriet Amelia Scott Bird was the youngest of six children born to the Reverend Charles Robinson Bird of Castle Eden, County Durham in September 1864: against much family opposition she became a medical student at the Medical College for Women in Edinburgh. This College had been established by Dr Elsie Inglis (a prominent campaigner for the Suffrage moment who would be deeply involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War) and two other former students of the Edinburgh School of Medicine in 1889, and it successfully entered into an agreement with Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1892 for the clinical training of its students. Harriet studied here between 1893 and 1898, and was lucky to be in the first wave of women allowed to enter the Scottish universities, which opened up their doors to women in 1892.
Wertheim’s testimonial mentions how Harriet was conscientious in her studies in the gynaecological department at the Elizabeth Hospital, assisting in the laboratories and gaining experience in minor and major gynaecological procedures by performing on cadavers, including vaginal hysterectomy, which Victor Bonney back in London was to be a pioneer of carrying out some ten to twenty years later. She also had the opportunity of studying ophthalmology under Dr Frohlich.
On returning to Edinburgh with this glowing testimonial and a further period of study in Berlin under her belt, Harriet took a position as house-surgeon at Leith Hospital, but her marriage in December 1901 brought her promising career to an immediate halt. Although she busied herself as an active member of the Local Board of Guardians in Liverpool, where her husband had a GP practice, she never revisited her medical and surgical training, and died in 1934 at the age of 70.
Penny Hutchins, College Archivist