Dr Peter Moore: Women doctors needed to be ‘ruthlessly unsexed’ - whatever that means!

Today, more than half of all doctors are women

Today, more than half of all doctors are women - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dr Peter Moore former Torbay GP

Last week, my fellow columnist Katie Cavanna wrote a fascinating piece about the problems women face in business and work.

It reminded me of an article in the British Medical Journal in 1870. OK, I did not subscribe to the BMJ in 1870 although I may have been writing a column for Jim Parker.

The BMJ Paris correspondent was concerned that some 'socialist newspapers' had taken up 'the rights of women'.

In France, he was horrified to see that they were actually training young ladies to be doctors.

'Are the medical schools of Great Britain to be disgraced by demoralising spectacles such as I have seen in Paris in connection with the education of female medical students?'

He added: 'The majority of right-thinking persons will feel that a community of young men and young women in medical studies must mutually deteriorate both... the conjoined teaching of both sexes must either be a sham, or the female students must be ruthlessly unsexed.'

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So what 'disgraceful spectacles' did he see in Paris? Young ladies were taking notes alongside young men on a lecture discussing intimate female anatomy. The lecture included anecdotes.

Amazingly, he commented, the young women were not even blushing! 'These disgusting spectacles made a strong impression upon my mind.'

Training lady doctors, he suggested, would destroy reverence and respect for female modesty.

'Can anyone be more pitilessly unsexed than the young woman who has been taught the science and art of medicine with young men?'

But he did admit that if women are to be equal, they must learn the profession in the same way as men.

There was one advantage. 'It might be well for the young men to form friendships with female fellow-students of repute rather than with the disreputable damsels of the balls and drinking-saloons.'

But his final point was the most telling. This was a time when doctors were in competition in a free market.

He asked: 'Are women doctors required? ...men are physically better adapted than women for medical practice, and men doctors will in 99 cases in 100 successfully compete with women doctors?'

So, he argued, it was cruel to women and injurious to men to 'barter modesty for medicine'. Obviously patients would always prefer a male doctor.

Five years before this BMJ article, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as an apothecary and was allowed to practice medicine although no hospital would employ her.

Even though she obtained the best mark in the exam the Society of Apothecaries immediately closed the 'loop-hole' to ensure no other woman could qualify.

In 1870, she gained a medical degree in France and joined the British Medical Association in 1873. They immediately banned any further women members until 1892.

But, in fairness to my profession, she was elected president of the East Anglian branch of the BMA in 1897. The problem that the 'anti-women' men faced was that she was a very good doctor.

When I went to medical school in 1969 attitudes had changed but numbers hadn't, at least not my old-fashioned London Medical School.

Why train women when they can't represent the college in rugby? There were about 120 students in my year with 12 women. I never met any of the 'disreputable damsels of the balls and drinking-saloons'.

By the time I qualified in 1975 the new intake was 50 per cent women and, today, more than half of all doctors are women which would upset the 1870 Paris correspondent of the BMJ.

Of my four sons, none of them went into medicine but two married doctors. Both are excellent doctors and neither has been 'ruthlessly unsexed' whatever that means.