DUBLINTIMEMACHINE: Today in 1877 a woman called Eliza Walker Dunbar became the first female to earn a medical licence in Ireland or Great Britain. The trailblazer passed her medical exams with flying colours in The Royal College of Physicians, which was then called the “King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland.”
Of course, this late-in-the-game first for women was no reflection of female intelligence or talent, but rather just another symptom of a misogynistic status quo that treated women as unequal in intellect or ability. Conveniently, this oppression also kept men on top of every social stratum whilst also freed males from domestic responsibilities they might have regarded as less than heroic or glamorous.
Dunbar was a true child of the Empire. Born in the Raj of British India, her Da was Scottish and she was educated in Cheltenham, England. It was that very international flavour of her CV which convinced the Council of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians that her graduation wouldn’t count as competition for her medical peers in Ireland. On the basis she told them she would take her qualifications elsewhere….an early victim of our brain drain!
The 1858 Medical Act technically didn’t bar women, so much as make it effectively impossible to qualify as a doctor by making it illegal for them to study medicine at Royal Colleges, universities, and medical institutions.
The Enabling Act of 1876, long campaigned for by a significant underground network of renegade female physicians and academics, like Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, finally broke the stethoscope ceiling. King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland was the first institution to use this new legislation.