This month’s Pioneers post explores the life and work of Dr Ruth Nicholson (1884-1963). Ruth was one of the foremost medical women in the North of England during the early 20th century. Recently, we were lucky enough to ask questions about Ruth to Rosemary Nicholson, wife of Ruth’s nephew and an advocate for the remarkable medical heritage of the Nicholson family.
The only woman in her graduating class at medical school in 1909, Ruth Nicholson did not choose obstetrics and gynaecology as a speciality until after the First World War where she served as Frances Ivens’ second in command and principal surgeon at Royaumont Military Hospital in France.
Ruth was the eldest in a large family of seven children and chose to study medicine after her father, a vicar, took her to see an exhibition on medical missionary work in Newcastle. Ruth’s father was a keen photographer and produced many incredible photographs of his children and the family’s beloved pets.
“[Ruth] was very, very single minded to become a doctor,” Rosemary Nicholson
Ruth’s mother, Margaret, (who had been orphaned at 16) was incredibly forward thinking. She was keen to see all her children receive professional qualifications and secure their independence. Rosemary describes the Nicholson family as incredibly devout and faith driven, which is reflected in Ruth’s decision to pursue missionary work during her early career. Ruth was not the only child in the family to pursue medicine. Her youngest sister became a GP and another sister, Alison, became a nurse.
“I thought ‘these are remarkable women’, the six of them, two doctors, another of them was at the Royal Victoria Infirmary… another started the physio department… another was a head teacher at a boarding school,” Rosemary Nicholson
Ruth registered as a student at the College of Medicine in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1904. After graduation, she worked in a dispensary before joining Bruntsfield Hospital as assistant to Dr Elsie Inglis, the renowned Scottish doctor, suffragist, and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). Her association with Inglis and Frances Ivens provided Nicholson with a constant source of support, encouragement and guidance throughout her early career.
Like many medical women during the period, Nicholson looked abroad to missionary work as an opportunity to gain surgical experience and prove herself to her male peers. She worked in a field hospital in Gaza in Palestine until the advent of the First World War when the War Office accepted her offer to serve as a field surgeon.
But her hopes were dashed early on when, just before their departure from Victoria Station, the doctor of the voluntary unit she had joined refused to take a female doctor with his unit. Ruth was hurt by the rejection, but no less motivated to join the war effort.
“[Ruth] hardly paused [after Victoria Station] before getting in touch with Elsie Inglis again,” Rosemary Nicholson
Nicholson was far from the only female doctor to face rejection. Even Elsie Inglis, after offering her all female-staffed 100 bed hospital unit to the war effort, was told to ‘go home and sit still’. But the French Government accepted Inglis’ offer and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Services established women-run medical units in Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia.
The President of the French Red Cross arranged for the SWH to use the uninhabited abbey at Royaumont, 30 miles north of Paris, to establish a military hospital. The hospital was run tirelessly by Frances Ivens and her all-female team of surgeons, orderlies, radiologists and ambulance drivers. It was here that Ruth Nicholson took on the key post of Ivens’ trusted deputy and one of Royaumont’s principal surgeons, handling the bulk of the major surgical work, from December 1914 to March 1919. Nicholson’s sister, Alison, also served at Royaumont as a nurse.
As well as providing crucial medical expertise, field hospital experience and administrative support, Ruth proved to be an extremely popular leader. She established an excellent rapport with the nurses and ambulance drivers, impressing them with her liveliness and sense of fun. She is said to have performed ‘scarf dances’ during hospital festivities. Her role as a ‘dancing dervish’ was fondly remembered at SWH reunions and in their newsletters for years after the war, as was her role as the Big Bad Wolf in the hospital pantomime in 1916.
“She was always very keen on having fun and went in for a lot of acting and shows… a lot of fancy dress,” Rosemary Nicholson
The staff at Royaumont treated over 10,000 patients during the War and reported better mortality rates than its military-run equivalents. For her remarkable contributions, Ruth, alongside Frances Ivens and thirty of their SWH colleagues, was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal in 1918.
After the War, Ruth chose to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology, taking on the role of Clinical Lecturer and Gynaecological Surgeon at the University of Liverpool. She gained consultancy appointments in other Liverpool hospitals and later established her own practice.
Among her many achievements and accolades, Ruth was foundation Member and later a Fellow, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and was a founder member of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club in 1937. She also became the first female President of the North of England Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society. After her election, one member of the Society commented: ‘I think we have picked a winner.’
Ruth was great friends with two other medical women at Liverpool Maternity Hospital: Fanny Toza (a lecturer in the Histological Department) and Helen Duval (a pathologist and paediatrician). The three were seen together so frequently they were nicknamed ‘the three musketeers’. They even retired together in South Devon.
“Helen had fantastic cars! They drove everywhere together and were great walkers and climbers,” Rosemary Nicholson
Ruth continued to attend Royaumont reunions and was nursed by one of the former Royaumont sisters towards the end of her life. She died in Exeter in 1963 at age 79.
Credit: the RCOG Heritage Service would like to thank Rosemary Nicholson for her kind permission to reproduce many of the photographs in this blog post.