Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Royal Navy's pioneering women doctors

Move over Dr Stephen Maturin? Make room, Dr Roderick Random?

Britain's Royal Navy was slow to accept women medical offices, certainly at sea. A sawbones and a woman was surely a contradiction in terms, it was thought.

Today I'm just discovering the women pioneers in this field in the 1960s. Colette Green in 1963 was the Navy's first woman doctor to be commissioned for 10 years. This is picture from the Imperial War Museum that I found with great delight and surprise. IWM A 34746. Part of ADMIRALTY OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Finding these naval women is all part of the exploratory process involved in writing my new book: Women and the Royal Navy, to be published later this year by IB Taurus/National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Dr Green had a very few predecessors, seemingly less than 20. See below.

Early pioneers

1. Dr Dorothy Hare (1876-67) Medical Superintendent for the WRNS in WW1 but initially a doctor with the Royal Army medical Corps in 1916. Pictured below, courtesy of IWM.

2. Dr Genevieve Rewcastle (1897-1951) obstetrician and the Medical Superintendent for the WRNS. She had 21-25 other doctors in her team including Ailsa Whitehouse, WW2. They worked mainly with Wrens

3. Toweringly stellar pioneer and First World War veteran Louise McIlroy. In World War I she had been a leading figure the Scottish Women's Ambulance movement, including in Serbia and Salonika. In WW2 she was a consultant gynaecologist to the Second World War WRNS. Miss McIlroy (1874-1968) was the only woman among the twenty-eight civilian medical consultants for the wartime Navy and the only woman consultant to the Navy until that point.

4. Dr Patricia MacDonald, later Morley (1929-2003), c.1954. She became an ultrasound pioneer after she left the Navy

5. Dr Colette Green in 1963 (born 1934).She was especially interested in orthopaedics

And later pioneers

6. Dr Victoria McMaster (born 1961), the first woman doctor in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (the Merchant Service organisation that provides support ships to the Royal Navy).

7. Surgeon Captain Fleur Marshall, the Medical Officer in Charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine (pictured below, right). http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/-/media/royal-navy-responsive/documents/profiles/marshall-fleur.pdf

What sort of situations did RN women medics face in their early history?
~ exclusion from seagoing, which meant they could never acquire the seniority to gain a high-level career
~ Jack Tars who were embarrassed at baring their bits to ladies - or rather titillated by the idea
~ a Treasury who thought the MOs should be waged as women, not as doctors i.e. low paid (1949)
~ exclusion from the naval medical team in the Falklands Conflict (1982)

What changed?
~ From the early 1960s the acute shortage of medical and nursing personnel meant women had to be accepted or the Navy simply wouldn't have had the healthcare needed to make it operational. Women doctors were able to work on short-term contracts.
~ From 1993, naval women of all sorts were allowed to go to sea, and so their career became similar in structure to men

Today all the Navy's women doctors are seagoing. For the story of one, Surgeon Lieutenant Dr Jo Laird on HMS Somerset in 2014, go to http://www.theadventuremedic.com/features/life-royal-navy-doctor/

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