As a professional woman in the UK in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine ‘risking a rebuff’, on the basis of my sex alone, on applying for a position I am more than qualified for. Also I am fairly certain that it is no longer the case that to volunteer for a short period giving aid to developing countries would seriously hamper any career progress or chances of promotion. However, in the 1960s, both these discriminatory practices were accepted and common.
Recent cataloguing of RCOG President Arthur Bell’s papers [Archive Reference RCOG/A4/11/2], dating between 1960 and 1963, reveal a professional world far different from the one in which the RCOG sits today. How crushed must a woman of the calibre of Meave Kenny been to receive Sir Arthur’s reply to her request for advice on applying for the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Queensland, Australia:
‘I am afraid I would have thought it very doubtful whether a woman would have been appointed to a Chair in Australia. There have been very few examples in this country and, as far as I know, none in the Commonwealth.’ (July 1963)
Miss Kenny’s experience was considerable. While in Europe with the Royal Canadian Air Force, she organised postgraduate courses for Canadian and US Air Force doctors, coaching many of them for the DRCOG and MRCOG. She had been invited to lecture in India and during her time there had performed clinical demonstrations and operations for undergraduate and graduate students, and had also contributed numerous articles for textbooks and encyclopaedias. She modestly writes in her letter ‘I understand my operative skill, at least, is the talk of Brisbane!’. I have been unable to find out more about Miss Kenny’s career but I hope that more will come to light as I continue work on the College Archive.
Kenneth Hill, Professor of Pathology at the University of London, was obviously aware of discrimination in the medical worlds, and on behalf of the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine drew up a memorandum entitled ‘Medical Service within the Commonwealth and Other Countries Overseas’. Recognising that short term assistance was required in underdeveloped countries, he stressed that the main focus should be ‘in giving doctors a feeling of confidence that, if they serve for a period overseas, their interests will be safeguarded before, during and after their service and they and their families will receive recognisably fair treatment.’ The memorandum also suggests a code of secondment, which would allow reinstatement to original positions for doctors undertaking overseas contracts, with appropriate promotions and salary guarantees. The memorandum ends on a noble note:
‘Medical practice overseas means more than giving essential services to developing countries; it embodies the development of a culture which, dearly wrung from the past centuries, may afford a signpost for a new world.’
The culture today, thankfully, is diametrically opposed to such practices, as is very evident from RCOG strategy which champions the rights of women, professionally as well as with the management of their health care, and works to provide volunteers in underdeveloped countries.
Penny Hutchins, Archivist