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Gender Inequality in Medicine and Surgery

Home > Exhibitions > Admitting Women > Gender Inequality in Medicine and Surgery

Gender Inequality in Medicine and Surgery

The nineteenth century was a pivotal period for medical practitioners in Britain. The 1858 Medical Act formally distinguished highly-trained physicians and surgeons from unqualified ‘irregular’ practitioners and created an educational, legislative standard for entry into the medical profession. Through the creation of the Medical Register, practitioners were required to hold a licence to practice medicine, granted by the universities or through the recognised medical corporations, such as the then-titled Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. 

However, as the Medical Act debarred itinerant practitioners from entry to the Medical Register, it simultaneously delegitimised a number of highly-skilled female practitioners by limiting access to medical education and practice. While women healers were not uncommon in both urban and rural communities throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Medical Act reduced portals of entry to the medical profession by requiring Candidates to be examined only within the universities and corporations– the vast majority of which were not open to women. Despite many protests by notable female practitioners, such as Elizabeth Adelaide Baker and Sophia Jex-Blake, it would not be until an Act of Parliament in 1876 when women would be able to legally obtain a “registrable” qualification.

Although willing to provide licenses to women since the 1880s, the College was reluctant to proactively support women’s careers in medicine and their pursuit of more senior roles. The decision to admit women as Fellows did not represent an acceptance of female health professionals into the College community. Women continued to suffer marginalisation and discrimination, with numerous barriers in their efforts to progress into leadership roles well into the 20th century. The College elected its first female president, Professor Jackie Taylor, in 2018.

This exhibition is the digital version of the installation of four new artworks in College Hall inspired by the stories of four remarkable women; Elizabeth Adelaide Baker, Dr Jessie MacLaren MacGregor, Dr Anne Louise McIlroy, and Jamini Sen. All four women played important roles in the battle against gender inequality in the medical profession.