To mark the Centenary of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, we learn more about pioneering Brighton woman, Dr Helen Boyle.
Helen Boyle (1869-1957) was Brighton’s first woman GP and transformed the lives of working-class women in the area through her ground-breaking treatment of mental illness.
Responsible for establishing a dispensary and hospital staffed by women for women, she went on to become the first female psychiatrist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and co-founder of MIND.
As a young doctor Helen Boyle arrived in Brighton in 1897 galvanised by her work in London’s East End which gave her first-hand experience of the mental and physical strain on women living in poverty. Determined to provide medical services to working-class women, with Dr Mabel Jones she set up the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children in the then deprived area of Hanover. The dispensary offered free or low-cost treatment to women who couldn’t afford GP’s charges, in a sympathetic female-only environment – and was a great success.
But Boyle’s long-held ambition was to transform the treatment of working-class women with early-stage mental illness, whom she fiercely described as ‘neglected and maltreated until … they were turned into the finished product – lunatics’. In 1905 she founded the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women with Nervous Diseases.
Before that time, poor women of Brighton with mental illnesses from depression to borderline insanity – exacerbated by inadequate living conditions, nutrition and exhaustion – had recourse to no help other than committal to the asylum. Boyle’s hospital was the first of its kind in England, treating poor women before they became certifiable.
As well as receiving professional acclaim in the medical sector, Boyle was honoured for her war work in Serbia in 1915. She never married, but shared a home for the last seventeen years of her life with her companion Marguerite du Pre Gore Lindsay. She died in Pyecombe in 1957.
Further information on Boyle and other early women doctors is held at Brighton History Centre.
Anna Kisby, Brighton History Centre