Pioneers: Louisa Martindale (1873-1966) FRCOG 1933

Louisa Martindale was a pioneering surgeon, an ardent suffragist and one of the most influential figures in Brighton in the early 20th century. She was Brighton’s first female GP. She served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont during the First World War and as a surgeon in London during the Second World War. She was on the frontlines during the campaign to ensure fair treatment and opportunities for female doctors, which led to her being awarded with the CBE in 1931.

Martindale was only the second woman to serve on the RCOG Council, having been co-opted in 1936, and during her long career she was President of both the Medical Women’s International Association and of the Medical Women’s Federation. She was a founding member of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club as well as a member of the National Council of Women and of Royal Society of Medicine. She was also Brighton’s first female Justice of the Peace, served as magistrate on the Brighton bench, was a prison commissioner at Lewes Prison, and governor of Portslade Industrial School.

Portrait of Louisa Martindale, President of the Med. Womens Federation (1930-1932) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Raised in Lewes and Brighton, Martindale attended Brighton and Hove High School for Girls and was greatly influenced by her mother, also named Louisa Martindale (née Spicer), who was a member of the Women’s Liberal Federation and of the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Martindale’s mother was one of the founders of the dispensary for Women and Children in Brighton. It was from this dispensary that Martindale later founded the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, which opened in 1921 with Martindale as the senior surgeon.

Martindale’s sister, Hilda (1875-1952), was one of Britain’s first female factory inspectors. Hilda joined the Treasury in 1933 and became one of the first women to reach the higher levels of the Civil Service.

With her mother’s encouragement, Martindale attended Royal Holloway College and the London Royal Free School of Medicine for Women, graduating in 1899. After graduating, she accepted the offer of an assistant’s post with Dr Mary Murdoch, the first female house physician at the Victoria Hospital for Children. Around 1907, Martindale moved to Brighton and set up her own practice at 10 Marlborough Place.

In 1915 she travelled to Royaumont Abbey in France to serve with the Scottish Women’s Hospital, which provided lifesaving care to wounded soldiers during the First World War. She spent her time there dressing wounds, operating on injured soldiers, writing reports and pitching in with other necessary chores. She was incredibly impressed with the women at Royaumont, especially their Chief Medical Officer Frances Ivens for ‘her endurance, courage and above all her surgical skill’. On her return to the UK, Martindale sent them a much needed supply of new knives for their kitchens as a gift.

She became interested in the use of radiotherapy in gynaecology on a trip to Freiburg in Germany in 1913 where she observed the procedure. Afterwards, Martindale invested in a 200,000 volt x-ray apparatus for her own practice in Brighton where she became one of the first doctors in Britain to use deep x-ray therapy in cases of fibroid uterus and breast cancer. In 1924, a she attended a meeting of representatives from hospitals staffed by women, which led to the formation of a Committee to study radiotherapy. This eventually led to the establishment in 1929 of the Marie Curie Hospital, where Martindale worked as honorary surgeon.

Martindale with International Advisory Committee of National Woman's Party 1925
Louisa Martindale (front row, fourth from the left) with the National Women’s Party Group Photo in 1925. Seated at the far left is Alice Paul conferring with English members of newly formed International Advisory Committee of National Woman’s Party – an American Woman’s Club – in London. Left to Right – Seated – Alice Paul, Elizabeth Robins, Viscountess Rhondda, Dr. Louisa Martindale, Mrs. Virginia Crawford, Dorothy Evans – Standing – Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence, Alison Neilans, Florence Underwood, Miss Barry. London News Agency Photos. Credit: The Library of Congress, United States.

Having inherited her mother’s strong personality, Martindale was outspoken on many taboo subjects, such as prostitution and venereal disease, which she discussed openly in her 1909 booklet Under the Surface.

Her 1922 book The Woman Doctor and her Future explored the role of woman in medicine from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. She wrote:

“We cannot doubt that the Woman Doctor of the future will give to the scientific world gifts of value we cannot yet measure, a service to humanity illimitable in its fearlessness and devotion.”

In 1931, she petitioned the House of Lords and House of Commons as President of the Medical Women’s Federation to ensure the British Postgraduate Medical School admitted women on equal grounds to men. She served as the only woman on the School’s governing board until she was joined by Dame Barrie Lambert and Professor Hilda Lloyd, the first female President of the RCOG.

Council of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, taken in College House, Queen Anne Street in 1934. Louisa Martindale, the only woman on Council that year, is in the front row. The photograph also features College President, Dr J S Fairbairn and also the Mace-Bearer, J Loseby. RCOG Archive reference RCOG/PH6/1A.

Known as ‘Lulu’ to those closest to her, Martindale was very attentive to her patients and popular with them as a result. On her resignation from the New Sussex Hospital in 1937, she invited every patient she had performed major operations on to a farewell party where she hired a conjuror to entertain them. She continued to practise medicine in London until 1947.

In her early days in Brighton, Martindale met Ismay Fitzgerald, daughter of Baron FitzGerald of Kilmarnock, whom she lived with for over thirty years. In her personal life, Martindale travelled extensively and loved animals, especially her Pekingese dogs. She developed glaucoma in her later years, which eventually claimed her sight. In her biography A Woman Surgeon, Martindale wrote of her own life, “I have had my full share of love and happiness.” She died in London in 1966, aged 93.

Louisa Martindale’s portrait. Credit: Mill View Hospital, Brighton

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