A quiet revolution


In the last 30 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women entering medical education. Now, the ratio of women in general practice is expected to rise over men, but we are far from equality in the high reaches of the medical profession. James Johnston and Professor Suzanne Cholerton examine the evidence.

It isn’t surprising that the very early history of the medical school in Newcastle does not feature women. Their struggle for access to medical education was still only beginning to emerge when the first gatherings commenced at Bells Court in the 1830s. Even though a female monarch sat firmly on the throne and the College of Medicine expanded significantly in terms of student numbers, opportunities for women interested in medicine remained extremely limited. 

Change, however, was very much on the horizon thanks to the efforts of pioneering individuals and the emergence of the Suffragette movement. Women began to challenge the preconceptions of their societal role and find opportunities outside the Victorian household. A woman’s right to equal education therefore became the new frontier for women’s rights.

The most renowned female doctor of this period was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who studied in the US and received her final degree in Paris in the 1860s. However it was not until 1882 that the first woman, Edith Shove, qualified in the UK – at London Medical School – and Newcastle was quick to respond.

Women were adept at taking advantage of medical schools who showed positive support for their education, and Newcastle was an attractive provincial prospect for those looking to finish their studies. From the official acceptance of female students in 1896, we can trace the first Newcastle women who dedicated their professional careers to general practice, basing themselves in areas across the country with poor public health where gentleman practitioners feared to tread.

One of the first, Dr Grace Billings-Stewart, went on to set up the first practice in Cheltenham and became a champion for female medics at the British Medical Association (BMA). In her obituary, a friend recounts: ‘For some time she was the only woman present at meetings. It needed some courage to go to dinners after meetings when women were in the extreme minority, but this never appeared to worry her. It was amusing to watch her light an after-dinner cigar with complete lack of concern for the surprised glances of newly arrived doctors’.

Dr Billings-Stewart went on to set up the first field hospital for returning soldiers in the Great War and came out of retirement to run the St John Ambulance in WWII. 

Archive material from the College of Medicine reveals little about the discussions at Senate, the governing body, but we do know that women were discouraged from fraternising with male counterparts or referring to friends by Christian names in public.   

Nevertheless, women kept signing up to medicine. Increasingly endorsed by greater professionalism, the emergence of a structured health service and the post-war liberation of women, it became a highly attractive option. By 1953 the male-to-female ratio was 5:1, and this continued to grow year on year so that by 1990 over half of students in British medical schools were women. In a recent Department of Health report, Newcastle has one of the highest concentrations of female to male students (along with Edinburgh and Sheffield) at 55:45.

Female medical students graduating from Newcastle (1908)

Now, as young medics consider the importance of work-life balance and family commitments, the flexibility of working hours in general practice is making it an even more attractive career choice for women. The BMA anticipates that by 2013, 70 per cent of GPs will be female.

But no matter how flexible general practice will become, it’s medical specialisms that provide women with the greatest challenge. Women are still not reaching the top echelons of their profession, and only amount to a quarter of consultants and four per cent of consultant surgeons in the UK, according to the Royal College of Physicians. 

This is starkest when examining the pay gap between male and female doctors. Discounting factors such as experience and area of specialism, the BMA reported in November that female consultants typically earn £5,500 less – and female junior doctors £2,000 less – than their male counterparts. 

However, there is a continual growth in the numbers of women in academia, with 40 per cent of lecturers and 13 per cent at professorial level nationwide (figures from the Medical Schools Council).

This is very much the case at Newcastle. In September last year, the University received the Athena Swan Bronze Award for its work in supporting female academics across all three faculties. With a women to men ratio of 51:49 in academic posts in the Medical School, there is much to do to ensure both genders have an equal opportunity to progress to senior positions.

Women have laid strong roots in the medical profession. And although they’re yet to reach the highest bows, it’s clear that it’s no longer just a man’s world.


The British Medical Association allows women to become members. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had until then been the only female member.

The first female student (Edith Blanche Joel) appears on the student register at the College of Medicine, Newcastle, amongst 200 men. Edinburgh University agrees to open up the medical degree to female students after prolonged disputes.

Official regulations are announced concerning the admission of women to Newcastle’s College of Medicine. Riots break out in Cambridge whilst it debates the merits of making women full members of the University.

First cohort of female medics graduates from Newcastle – Margaret Joyce, Grace Harwood Stewart, Claudia Anita Prout Rowse – at the same time as renowned surgeon Gray Turner.

First woman graduates with MB BS after completing full medical training in Newcastle.

Ethel Williams is one of the first female medical practitioners on Tyneside. An active suffragette, she holds a distinguished public service record and is the first woman to drive a car in the North of England.

Female students now represented in each year group of the medical degree.

The Courier of 6 October runs a story concerning the significant drop in female students after years of growth in the post war period. The reason is attributed to the University’s focus on technical degrees: ‘Females always tending towards the arts’.

James Johnston is Development Manager for the University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, and Professor Cholerton is Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

published on: 19th February 2010

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