Throughout the ages, women have always been central to the delivery of medical care – be that by offering treatments in the home, nursing in the community or acting as herbalists. Nevertheless, for much of the history of medicine, the profession has been distinctly male dominated with women excluded and marginalised.
Today, many women excel in careers as exceptional doctors, surgeons and consultants. Yet it is only in relatively recent history that women have secured the right to study and practise medicine in the UK as the equals of men.
At the end of the 19th Century, Grace Billings became one of the first women to graduate with her Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) qualification from Kings College Durham (yet to become Newcastle University's medical school).
Little is known of Grace before she embarked on a career in medicine however, we her celebrated medical career is well documented.
Leaving Tyneside for a move to Cheltenham, in 1899 she founded a practice solely catering for female-only patients.
Despite Cheltenham boasting a great number of doctors already, Grace became the first female medic to practice in the city. Over the coming years, she moved the practice from location to location – increasing in size to meet the needs of an ever greater number of patients.
During the first world war, many wounded and injured soldiers were sent to Cheltenham for treatment and Grace found herself busily working in the town's hospitals.
Unsurprisingly, considering the sheer grit and determination which had ensured that women such as Grace had secured the right to study and practise medicine, many of these early female doctors chose to cater for health needs normally shunned by their male counterparts. Grace was no exception to this and built a reputation for gynaecological health, sexual health and child welfare.
In 1927, Grace was joined in the practice by another female doctor, Dr Gwendolen [correct] Brown before she retired in 1936. Unsurprisingly for a women who had immersed herself in a career which she seemingly loved and flourished in, Grace came out of retirement during the second world war to become actively involved in the work of the St John's Ambulance service.
Grace Billings lived well into her eighties and was survived by her son and daughter. Her daughter Dr Brenda King herself worked in General Practice in Cheltenham before becoming school medical officer for Gloucestershire County Council where she developed County-wide child health programmes.
Dr Grace Billings made a difference in many ways to her profession and career. Today, the medical practice she founded at the dawn of the 20th Century (now called the Overton Park Surgery) still continues to thrive and proudly celebrates it's history in the town.
For many medical students, the greatest battle they face is once they commence their studies. However, for Grace and her female contemporaries, their tenacity and sheer determination to be treated equally to men and not be discriminated based on their sex is perhaps one of their greatest triumphs.