To mark International Women’s Day, I would like to bring the pioneers of the past to bear on the present.
These are rich stories. They are part of Australian medicine of which not many people are aware.
I am talking about the secret history of women in medicine. About the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, founded by Constance Stone in 1895.
Constance was a marvel. Melbourne University’s faculty of medicine wasn’t open to women until mid-1887. So what did she do?
She went to Pennsylvania in the US, where women were being admitted to medical school, then to Canada for another year to acquire accreditation and then to the UK, where she qualified in apothecaries – the UK equivalent of general practice training.
After working as a doctor in the UK, Constance finally returned to Melbourne as the first practising female doctor in Australia.
Constance established her rooms at the top end of Collins Street, as the public hospitals would not let her work there.
Constance worked in a Collingwood clinic administering to the poor one day a week. This experience, combined with her inability to work in the hospital, motivated Constance to open a mission for poor women and children.
Her husband, Reverend Egryn Jones, was a Presbyterian minister at the Welsh Church on La Trobe Street and, with his support, Constance converted the hall at the back of the church into a new clinic in 1899. From all accounts, the queues were enormous.
Seeing that need drove Constance to think about how to offer a better, more equitable health services.
Whilst Constance was gaining her qualifications in the US, Canada and UK, her sister Clara Stone and cousin Mary Ellen Stone were able to graduate from the University of Melbourne, as it had now opened its doors to women. The doctors Stone all worked at the clinic, where they provided free medication through their apothecary and set up what was effectively a hospital in miniature.
That pioneering clinic paved the way for what would eventually become Australia’s first hospital set up for women, by women.
Constance convened the first meeting of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society in 1895. The very next year, with support from 10 other female doctors and a highly successful donation drive – asking every woman in Victoria to donate a shilling – they were able to open the Victoria Hospital for Women and Children. Three years later, it would move to larger premises and become known as the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children.
It’s an amazing story, and one I didn’t know until I happened to attend an international women’s medical conference.
It was then I heard about the Victorian society. Joining the society opened my eyes to a whole aspect of our professional history about which I knew precious little.
And, more than that, it helped me find my tribe.
You are first a medical student, then a doctor in training and then go through the hospital system. You end up juggling a lot of balls, especially if you have a family. It can be an enormous challenge, so finding the camaraderie of other medical women through the society is as significant now as it was for our pioneers back in 1895.
I have taken to exploring medical women’s history because I have realised that, in my training, there were not many female role models to whom I could aspire. When I discovered they did exist and, indeed, had existed for more than a hundred years, I wondered why that story had not yet been told.
Why isn’t it widely known many of the first crop of female medical graduates from Melbourne University went off to provide care during World War I?
To this day, these doctors have not been acknowledged in Australia – with the exception of a plaque we commissioned that sits on the wall of the Melbourne Welsh Church. Sadly, there is no mention of their participation in World War I at the Shrine of Remembrance.
Few know these brave women went off without the support of the armed forces, paid their own way and amassed supplies donated by friends and family. At the time, the cost of a boat to the UK was the modern equivalent of $5000–10,000 and took up to four months. It was a strong commitment.
You can read about them now in the book Women to the Front. I had the honour of launching this book last year in the Church Hall at the Welsh Church, where Constance Stone once worked.
But, until the release of this book, these medical women had been left out of history.
The amazing things they achieved need to be heard. They took themselves to Europe and moved around where the need was greatest, from Serbia to France to Greece, setting up clinics for the men in the trenches. They worked as surgeons, radiologists, anaesthetists and epidemiologists at a time where typhus, malaria and tuberculosis were raging across Europe.
Even though women could now be doctors, there were still barriers to entry during the war. In fact, the British newspapers actively advertised against hiring medical women.
In 1915, Melbourne doctor Dr Helen Sexton commented acerbically on the bias of the system: ‘It is a curious mental astigmatism that allows a woman to work with men on a hospital staff for years, and sends women nurses to a base hospital, yet refuses women surgeons.’
Dr Sexton was told she was not needed in the war effort. What did she do? Did she simply accept the ruling of the British War Office, which had been ignoring ‘lady doctors’ in favour of untested male medical students?
Not at all. Instead, she did what many women have done when confronted with institutional bias.
She adroitly sidestepped and did it anyway, transporting herself to the front and setting up the Australian Hospital in Paris. She got by on the French she acquired at school.
There, tending to the wounded, it turned out that her skills were most definitely needed. Who would have believed it?
When I hear these stories, it makes me wish they were known to all medical students, female and male.
Acknowledging the history of women in medicine is important, as we can look to them for inspiration in times of hardship. We can give thanks for paving the way for medical women today and for guidance into the future.
The whole issue of gender bias in history is that if you write women out, their contribution does not officially exist. How can you emulate something if it does not exist?
The stories of these figures who did things against all odds can help us now, in our time.
While many battles have been won, others remain. There is still inequality in the workforce. There are issues with pay and belittlement of the work women doctors do.
That is an ongoing challenge we are trying to address by being more vocal and by tracking the history of our forebears and bringing them to people’s minds. Many medical women continue to experience sexism, especially in certain specialties.
We all need to continue to advocate for part-time registrar training, as this will help women and men, rather than forcing our trainees to choose between training and having a family. Why not enable both women and men to participate in part-time training?
The constraints around women’s window of opportunity for starting a family might not be as restrictive for our male colleagues, but they too share the desire to spend more quality time with their families.
Allowing for part-time training will help us tackle the fact that much of the childrearing burden still falls on women, regardless of whether they have a partner.
Equal representation and leadership by women in medicine, along with gender-sensitive decision-making, teaching and research, is needed to bring the diversity and work styles and values of women to the profession.
If you happen to be in Melbourne on Saturday 7 March, the Victorian Medical Women’s Society will be holding the annual medical history walk through the city, retracing the steps of our first medical women.
Originally published: racgp.org.au/newsgp/professional/why-i-want-doctors-to-know-the-secret-history
Associate Professor Magdalena Simonis AM is the President of the AFMW (2020-) and former President of VMWS (2013 & 2017-2020). She is a full time clinician who also holds positions on several not for profit organisations, driven by her passion for bridging gaps across the health sector. She is a leading women’s health expert, keynote speaker, climate change and gender equity advocate and government advisor.
Magdalena was awarded a lifetime membership of the RACGP for her contributions which include past chair of Women in General Practice, longstanding contribution to the RACGP Expert Committee Quality Care, the RACGP eHealth Expert Committee. She is regularly invited to comment on primary care research though mainstream and medical media and contributes articles on various health issues through newsGP and other publications.
Magdalena has represented the RACGP at senate enquiries and has worked on several National Health Framework reviews. She is author of the RACGP Guide on Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery and co-reviewer of the RACGP Red Book Women’s Health Chapter, and reviewer of the RACGP White book
Both an RACGP examiner and University examiner, she undertakes general practice research and is a GP Educator with the Safer Families Centre of Research Excellence, which develops education tools to assist the primary care sector identify, respond to and manage family violence . Roles outside of RACGP include the Strategy and Policy Committee for Breast Cancer Network Australia, Board Director of the Melbourne University Teaching Health Clinics and the elected GP representative to the AMA Federal Council. In 2022. she was award the AMA (Vic) Patrick Pritzwald-Steggman Award 2022, which celebrates a doctor who has made an exceptional contribution to the wellbeing of their colleagues and the community and was listed as Women’s Agenda 2022 finalist for Emerging Leader in Health.
Magdalena has presented at the United Nations as part of the Australian Assembly and was appointed the Australian representative to the World Health Organisation, World Assembly on COVID 19, by the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) in 2021. In 2023, A/Professor Simonis was included on the King’s COVID-19 Champion’s list and was also awarded a Member (AM) in the General Division for significant service to medicine through a range of roles and to women’s health.