‘A pioneer among medical women’- Brighton’s first female GP, Dr Louisa Martindale

Today, 7 April, is World Health Day. A day designated by the World Health Organisation to celebrate and highlight the work of those who dedicate their lives to supporting, improving and saving the lives of others. During this time of world-wide health crisis, support and appreciation is more important and relevant than ever before. This blog is a hands in the air, clap and cheer as loud as possible, shout out to all of those working in and for the NHS.

Louisa Martindale, President of the Medical Women’s Federation

Today, 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series recognises and celebrates the incredible Dr Louisa Martindale, Brighton’s first female GP. A world without women doctors seems out of the question these days but when Dr Louisa Martindale set up a general practice at number 10, Marlborough Place, Brighton in 1906 it was a novelty.  Women had only been able to qualify as doctors since 1876 and in 1901 there were only 200 registered female physicians in the country.

Born in Essex in 1872, Martindale’s childhood was spent in Cornwall, Germany, and Switzerland before coming to Brighton in 1885.  Her mother, Louisa Martindale Senior, was a wealthy widow who passionately believed in women’s education and supported organisations which worked for equality. One of the reasons she’d settled in Brighton was the opportunity to have Louisa and her sister educated at the progressive Brighton High School for Girls which was attempting to provide girls with a level of education equal to that offered by boys. Unlike many young women, when Louisa decided upon a career in medicine, she had her family’s support all the way.

Photograph showing the location of the Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children

Graduating from the London School of Medicine for Women in 1899, and after spending a few years working in Hull, Dr Martindale opened up a practice just a few steps away from the Royal Pavilion in 1906, as well as becoming doctor to Brighton High and Roedean Schools. Soon she was giving her services to the landmark Lewes Road Dispensary for Women and Children in Islingword Road off Elm Grove. Set up in 1899, this pioneering charity donation-run establishment aimed, according to its first report ‘to afford to poor women of Brighton and the neighbourhood the opportunity of free consultation with Doctors of their own sex.’

In pre-NHS days, not only high fees were barring many women from accessing medical attention but also the lack of women doctors.  With Victorian modesty still prevailing, not many women would have felt comfortable discussing their bodies with a man. The Lewes Road Dispensary, with its all female staff, good opening times, and no requirement for a recommendation, would have been a lifesaver.  In 1910 Dr Martindale helped the Dispensary to develop and expand as it moved to larger premises in a row of terraced houses on Ditchling Road. Named the Lady Chichester Hospital (not to be confused with the later Lady Chichester Hospital for Mental Diseases operated by Dr Helen Boyle in Brunswick Place, both institutions enjoying the patronage of Lady Chichester), the larger premises offered beds and more specialised treatment and surgery. The annual report of 1913 lists the wide range of treatment offered from spinal concussion to tonsillitis to gastric ulcer to carcinoma of colon to angina to asthma – impressive for a grassroots organisation run by volunteer staff on donations and fund raising alone.

Photograph showing the location of the New Sussex Hospital for Women, where Louisa was a surgeon

In 1920 the hospital, with Dr Martindale at the head, moved to even larger premises in Windlesham House and changed its name to the New Sussex Hospital for Women.  At the opening ceremony, special guest Nancy Astor called the hospital a ‘beacon to the women of England’.  Dr Martindale presided as senior Surgeon and Physician at this hospital, now still standing in Temple Gardens and converted into flats, until 1937, although, from 1922 on a part-time basis while running a Surgical Consultant Practice in London.

Dr Martindale’s contribution to medicine was huge. During a 1913 trip to Germany she had become interested in the use of X-rays and became a specialist in the early treatment of cervical cancer by X-ray. She helped to establish the Marie Curie Hospital in London and worked there as honorary surgeon. Said to have performed over 7000 operations in her life, she became one of the first doctors in Britain to use deep x-ray therapy in cases of fibroid uterus and breast cancer.

In 1931 she became President of the Medical Women’s Federation, and as such petitioned the House of Lords and House of Commons to ensure the British Postgraduate Medical School admitted women on equal grounds to men. In 1933 she was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians. Somehow Dr Martindale also managed to find the time to serve as a magistrate and a prison commissioner, as well as writing and lecturing extensively on the suitability of medicine as a career for women.  She was active in both World Wars, serving with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Royaumont Abbey, France during the First and as a surgeon in London during the second.

Dr Martindale died in 1966. Tireless to the last, she had seen a patient just hours before, even though she was well into her nineties.  Her obituary in the Times refers to her as a ‘pioneer among medical women’.

An absolute trailblazer in the field of health and equality who did a lot of her work in Brighton, one of Dr Martindale’s main contributions was perhaps to inspire and pave the way for other women to follow her in to a medical career.

As she said in her 1922 book The Woman Doctor and her Future, ‘We cannot doubt that the woman Doc of the future will give to the scientific world gifts of value we cannot yet measure, a service to humanity illimitable in its fearlessness and devotion.’

Women are continuing to break boundaries in the medical profession today. The exhibition, 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin, features the photograph of Dame Clare Marx DBE DL FRCS who was elected the first female President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 2014, the first since the college was founded n 1800. During her three year term she initiate the transformation of the college building into a world-class surgical centre, worked on initiatives to encourage more women into surgery and championed patient safety and quality measures. Come and see the exhibition when the Museum reopens.

Written by social historian Louise Peskett

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