Review: Honourable Healers

Social change in any realm is never easy. It takes remarkable effort by individuals and communities to achieve major shifts in a society’s values and institutions.

In 1887, women were admitted to the Medical School at the University of Melbourne, 25 years after men and 21 years before women were entitled to vote in Victoria. Honourable Healers places this hard fought battle for inclusion in an international and national context, introducing us to the
key individuals involved.

Initially focusing on the history of women in medicine from the ancient world until the 19th century, the book shares the contribution of women healers through the centuries. Homer mentioned women surgeons practicing in ancient Greece, while in the 15th century the Catholic Church banned women from medicine and surgery. Despite fluctuations in views on their role and various obstacles, women have consistently contributed to medicine over the centuries.

Following chapters focus on key individuals that led institutional change in the 19th and early 20th centuries for women wishing to enter the medical profession. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was English and the first woman admitted to a medical school in the US. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was the first woman to qualify as a medical practitioner in Britain, though required to train elsewhere. Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) led the fight for women to be trained in medicine in Britain through the establishment of the London School of Medicine for Women. Constance Stone (1856-1902) was the first woman to be registered as a doctor in Australia.

Extensive biographies have been written about these individuals, but Honourable Healers provides a succinct overview of their achievements and examines them side by side. The common theme is their pursuit of medicine for reasons beyond personal advancement. All were driven by a desire to serve their communities, in particular disadvantaged women and children. While they did not always agree with each other’s methods to achieve change, they did inspire each other both directly and indirectly.

Honourable Healers is written by Merrilyn Murnane (PGDip Arts (Classic & Arch) 2010, Grad Dip Health & Medical Law 1998, MBBS 1960), a renowned paediatrician. Mentored by Dame Kate Campbell at the Queen Victoria Hospital, to whom the book is dedicated, Murnane reminds us of the power of individuals to change institutions and the remarkable legacy
of the early Australian women doctors.

Dr Jacqueline Healy

Senior Curator, Medical History Museum and
Henry Forman Atkinson Dental Museum