Mary Edith Pechey-Phipson: Fighting to be a doctor

By C.E.Moody, Friends of Folkestone Old Cemetery

Mary Edith Pechey-Phipson, one of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ is buried in Cheriton Road Cemetery. She was one of the ladies who fought and succeeded in being among the first registered women doctors in England. She was born in 1845 and had been educated at home by her parents, William and Sarah Pechey, a Baptist minister and a lawyer’s daughter who had studied Greek. She taught for a short while, then was indentured to Elizabeth Garrett, later Garrett Anderson, the only practising woman doctor with her name on the medical register. Mary had hoped to qualify using the same route as Elizabeth, taking the examinations of the Society of Apothecaries through apprenticeship, a loophole which the society had swiftly closed. In 1869 she replied to Sophia Jex-Blake’s request, in The Scotsman, for more women to join her in her fight to be given a place at Edinburgh University and study to become a doctor. Sophia’s initial application had been accepted by the medical faculty, but was overruled by the university court, on the grounds that mixed classes were unacceptable and special classes for one woman impractical. This implied that special classes might be possible for a group of women. By 1870 Sophia had four others to join her, including Mary, but they had to attend separate classes for women and pay higher tuition fees than men. In order to afford her classes, Edith gave lectures on physiology to women in Leeds.

In the Spring exams, four of the five women were awarded honours in Physiology and Chemistry, proving that they did not have inferior intellectual ability as their detractors had suggested. Mary came top in the Chemistry exam in her first year, which should have given her the Hope Scholarship, worth £200, but more importantly, the use of the chemistry laboratory. The Chemistry professor however, was concerned that, because the women were getting higher grades, it would cause upset amongst the men. He awarded the scholarship to the man who came second to Mary, on the grounds that women were not part of the university class because they were taught separately. The University also refused to give the women certificates for the classes they had passed.

The conflict came to a head in November 1870, in what became known as ‘The Riot at Surgeons’ Hall.’ When the ladies, now numbering seven arrived, 200 protesters blocked their entry to the classroom and stopped all the traffic for an hour. They walked up to the gates, which remained open until they were within a yard of them, when they were slammed in their faces by a number of young men. As the women sat the exam, the mob shoved a sheep into the hall, causing chaos. It is said that the professor in charge of the exam remarked, “The sheep can stay, it is clearly more intelligent than those out there.” The incident was reported in an Edinburgh newspaper and earned publicity worldwide, gaining the women sympathy and support. Mary and the others completed the course, but were not given a degree. In 1874, the University of Edinburgh expelled them on the grounds that their admission had violated the institution’s by-laws. Although the women took their case to court, they eventually lost and so had to continue their medical educations elsewhere.

Edith went to Switzerland, where she gained her M.D. in 1877 from the University of Berne (taking her exams in German). The English College of Physicians still refused to license women, but in 1877 the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland allowed Mary, Sophia Jex-Blake, and several other women admission to their final examinations. She took, and passed, the exams, finally earning the right to be registered as a doctor. She returned to Leeds, where she had previously lectured on women’s health and set up a practice there, where she knew people and had supportive friends. Not everybody would have approved of this, but it is said that she overcame prejudice by her charm, intelligence and generosity of mind. She founded, and became president of, the Medical Women’s Federation of England and also about this time, became a supporter of womens’ suffrage.

Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson suggested Mary as a possible Senior Medical Officer for P.H.Cama’s scheme to bring female doctors to India to treat women; male doctors never having been allowed to tend women. Mary arrived in Cama Hospital in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1883, learnt Hindi and started a training programme for nurses. She became the first Senior Medical Officer in the first hospital in the world to be staffed by women for women. She also campaigned for women’s rights during her time in India, including equal pay with the male doctors, education for girls and against child marriage. She fought for widows’ rights, with protection from suttee.

Through the Bombay Natural History Society, where she was on the board of management, she met and subsequently married, Herbert Musgrave Phipson, a wine merchant and also an enthusiastic naturalist. She resigned her post in 1894, when her diabetes began to seriously affect her health, but continued with her private practice. In 1896, during an outbreak of bubonic plague, she returned to Bombay. Her methods being applied to the epidemic of cholera and the famine which followed.

She returned to England in 1905, after 22 years of working in India, and, despite being ill, took part in the Suffragist Mud March in London on the 9th Feb 1907. It was the largest women’s demonstration up to that time, with over 3,000 women marching from Hyde Park Corner to The Strand. Crowds came, despite the heavy rain, just to see so many women marching and public attention was drawn to women’s rights.

When she died in 1908, after surgery for cancer, aged 62, Herbert set up a scholarship in her name at The London School of Medicine for Women. In India, the sanatorium at Nasik, Maharashtra was known as the Pechey-Phipson Sanatorium for Women and Children until 1964. She is buried at the Folkestone Old Cemetery, marked by a very simple headstone, with her name and M.D.

In 2019, on the 150th anniversary of their ‘matriculation’, The University of Edinburgh awarded the ladies posthumous honorary degrees.

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