Pioneers: Louise McIlroy, FRCOG 1929

Anyone wanting to know about the involvement of medical women in the history of the RCOG should start at the beginning. And that beginning was Dame Louise McIlroy. As well as being one of the College’s first female Fellows and a foundation Fellow of the Colleg, McIlroy was also the first women on the RCOG Council. She was chosen specially to represent the ‘female perspective’ of her fellow medical women and the patients the College was established to support.

McIlroy acceptance letter
Louise McIlroy’s letter accepting her Fellowship within the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1929.

Louise McIlroy (1874-1968) was born in Ballycastle, County Antrim where her father was a GP. She completed  her medical training in Glasgow and became the first female resident at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, later becoming house surgeon at the Glasgow Samaritan Hospital and then a gynaecologist at the Victoria Infirmary. In 1911 she became the first woman to become senior assistant to the Muirhead Professor of Obstetrics at Glasgow University, Professor Munro Kerr.

At the outbreak of the First World War McIlroy joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which had been established by Dr Elsie Inglis with the aim of using an all female staff to care for wounded soldiers.  They were paid for by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the American Red Cross, as well as funds raised by voluntary groups.  Louise McIlroy was posted to Troyes and had a distinguished career as a Medecin Chef both in France and later in Salonika and Serbia. She was awarded a Croix de Guerre for her services in 1916 and the OBE in 1920.

In 1921, the University of London set up its first Chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Royal Free Hospital and McIlroy was appointed its first occupant. McIlroy was a founder Fellow of the British College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and served on its Council from for four years from 1929, the first woman to do so, and she was made a Dame of the British Empire that same year. She was suceeded on the RCOG Council by Louisa Martindale, who had been co-opted for the role on McIlroy’s recommendation.

Her medical interests lay mainly in the field of toxaemia in pregnancy, asphyxia neonatorum and the relief of pain in labour. In 1936, her Ingleby lectures on toxaemia were published.

She was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1937, and she served as president of the Medico Legal Society and also of the obstetrical and gynaecological section of the Royal Society of Medicine. With her credentials, it was only natural that she was also one of the original members of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club in 1937.

Group photograph of members of the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club at the first meeting of the club held in Manchester in 1937. The photograph features (standing, left to right) Hilda Lloyd, Margaret Fairlie, Rhoda Adamson, Louise McIlroy, (seated) Alice Bloomfield, Amy Fleming, Louisa Martindale, Ruth Nicholson and Frances Huxley. Credit: the Women’s Visiting Gynaecological Club papers, RCOG Archive S108. Copyright WVGC.

Having retired in 1934 she returned to active work during World War II as a surgeon to the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) and helped to organise maternity services in Buckinghamshire.

Portrait of Dame Louise McIlroy.

When the War was over, she retired and left London for Scotland to live with her sister, Dr Janie McIlroy, in Ayrshire. She died at the Glasgow Hospital on the 8th February 1968, aged 93.

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