This time (and in time for International Women’s Day), our Pioneers series takes a look at one of the early female Fellows of our College.
When the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was founded in 1929, many practicing female gynaecologists initially hesitated to join. According to Fletcher Shaw’s history of the College, whilst they were accomplished and committed to their specialty, these female clinicians were not entirely convinced this new College would treat them as equals to their male peers. This, along with the RCOG’s initially tenuous relationship with Britain’s other medical colleges, provided significant obstacles for the involvement of women in the early years of the College.
But the tide began to turn with the co-option of founding RCOG Fellow Dame Louise McIlroy to the College’s first Council. The subsequent inclusion of Louisa Martindale, Frances Huxley and Alice Bloomfield in the years that followed laid the groundwork for the election of Dame Hilda Lloyd as the College’s first female president in 1949.
Several of these women had distinguished themselves serving in field hospitals during the First World War and were some of the earliest female obstetricians and gynaecologists to obtain Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in the early 20th century. In 1937 they came together to found a new group to advance the professional development of female gynaecologists: the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club.
Margaret Fairlie was one of these pioneering women. An influential clinician and teacher in obstetrics and gynaecology, she was the first woman to be appointed to a chair in midwifery in a Scottish University. Born on a far in county Angus, she went on to graduate from the University of St Andrew’s in 1915. She held a great number of junior appointments in hospitals in Dundee, Perth and Edinburgh before moving on to serve as obstetric and gynaecological registrar to St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester.
In 1926, after a visit to the Marie Curie Foundation, she began using radium in her hospital and private practice work, using her own savings to supplement the hospital’s own supply.
After the First World War, she returned to Dundee and received appointments on the honorary staff of hospitals in Angus and Fife in addition to building up a private practice. In 1936 she became head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Dundee Royal; infirmary as well as a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
She was a founding member of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club, President of the Forfarshire Medical Society, as a member of Queen’s College Council and a member of the Eastern Regional Hospital Board.
She was elected as one of the representatives for Scotland to the Council of the RCOG in 1955, where she served for two years. She also became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in the same year.
Her interest in hospital administration and maternity record keeping led to her playing a vital role in the planning stages of the maternity and gynaecological units of the Dundee Teaching Hospital. She also developed an extensive review system of all cases of gynaecological malignant disease, a punched-card records system for maternity cases, and she introduced vaginal smear cytology to cancer diagnosis.
On her retirement she was granted the honorary degree of LLD (Doctor of Laws) from her university as a tribute to her impact on the teaching landscape for Scottish obstetricians and gynaecologists.
After her death in 1963, one of her former student wrote: “There was no more popular teacher, nor one whose teaching was more helpful to the student. I and others own her an inestimable debt… There was the word of encouragement when deserved, and the timely word of criticism too- and she always inspired a feeling of enthusiasm, loyalty and alertness… We mourn her death, and in her passing have lost a remarkable and very human person.”