Emily Winifred Dickson

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About Dickson

Emily Winifred Dickson (1866-1944)

Emily Winifred Dickson was born in Dungannon, Tyrone, in 1866, the daughter of the Ulster Liberal MP Thomas A. Dickson and his wife Elizabeth Greer McGeagh. Winifred was the second youngest of seven children and was educated at the Ladies Collegiate School in Belfast and Harold House School in London.  After nursing her sick mother for a year and with the encouragement of her father, she decided to pursue a medical education. Winifred initially attempted to follow her brother and enrol at Trinity College Dublin for the 1887/88 term. Trinity College was not at this time open to women students, however.

Although Dickson was supported by the medical faculty, her application was opposed by the theologians of the university. As a result, she enrolled in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland at the age of twenty-one in the autumn of 1887, where she was the only female medical student attending lectures. Dickson was an extremely bright student and won several prestigious medals during her studies (RCSI/IP/Dickson/7). As her hospital attendance certificates illustrate (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1), she gained her clinical experience at a variety of institutions between 1889 and 1892, such as Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, the Rotunda Lying-In Hospital and the Richmond Lunatic Asylum. She attained her licence and MB degree in 1891 and 1893 respectively (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/2/2 and RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/4/3). Her latter qualification she achieved with first-class honours and an exhibition.

Also in 1893, Dickson was elected the first female fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/1/19), an important honour considering that the young doctor was only just beginning her career, but also indicative of the College’s favourable attitude towards women in medicine. In contrast, there was no female licentiate at the London Royal College of Surgeons until 1911 and no female fellows until 1920.

In 1893, after graduation, Dickson won a travelling scholarship from the Royal University of Ireland which permitted her to spend six months in Vienna and Berlin. Her time in Vienna proved valuable, but in Berlin she found herself unable to gain admission to many of the clinics. Upon her return to Dublin in 1894, Dickson put up her plate first in her father’s house in St Stephen’s Green. In 1895, after he moved to Drogheda, she moved practice to 18 Upper Merrion Street in Dublin and was appointed gynaecologist to the Richmond, Whitworth and Hardwick Hospital, where she worked for four years. A photograph taken of the medical staff at the Richmond Hospital during Dickson’s time there.

(RCSI/IP/Dickson/3/4/2) shows an all-male staff with the exception of Dickson. She was also appointed assistant master to the Coombe Lying-In Hospital, Dublin, for which she became supernumerary assistant in 1894. Dickson took her doctorate in medicine in 1896 (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/4/4), in addition to a masters in obstetrics (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/4/5), both of which she gained with honours. She was then appointed examiner in midwifery to the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1898, she applied unsuccessfully for the position of professor of obstetrics there (RCSI/IP/Dickson/2/3/2). Dickson’s early career seems to indicate a great amount of support from the hierarchy of the Irish medical profession, as is testified by the number of favourable letters of recommendation that she received from her former lecturers in Dublin (RCSI/IP/Dickson/2/3/1).

Dickson was part of a very small group of pioneer women doctors in Dublin in the 1890s.  By 1911, there were forty-two female medical practitioners in Dublin. Many of these doctors were deeply interested in philanthropic issues and Dickson was no exception. In her early career, she appears to have been strikingly active within the public sphere and her activities were widely reported in the Irish press. In 1893, the year she graduated with her MD degree, at a meeting of the Dublin Health Society, she gave a lecture on the topic of ‘Health and dress’.

A version of the paper was published later that year (RCSI/IP/Dickson/6/1/1). The following year, while studying in Vienna, she wrote to the British Medical Journal about the treatment of women patients in workhouses, arguing that women patients with gynaecological problems generally preferred to be treated by women doctors and that there was a need for women as workhouse doctors. She took an active interest in professional issues, attending, participating and presenting at meetings of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland.  Dickson was not just interested in professional issues. In 1895, at a meeting of the Irish Suffrage Association in Dublin, she urged ‘the necessity of well-to-do women taking an interest in questions which affected working women’.

She was also involved in the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Irish Association for the Prevention of Intemperance. In 1895, at a meeting of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland which took place in Dublin, she gave a paper on the need for women as Poor Law guardians in Ireland, with all of her male colleagues present supporting her views. The paper was published (RCSI/IP/Dickson/6/1/2). In a letter written in 1942, Dickson commented that women’s emancipation was the only worldwide movement she took an interest in, although she was insistent that she did not agree with militant suffrage. She was interested in the rights of women within the medical profession.

Her obituary (RCSI/IP/Dickson/4/1/2) claims that it was her correspondence with the secretary of the British Medical Association which helped to get its membership open to women, and Dickson then became one of its first women members when the Association opened membership to women in 1892. Additionally, Dickson was supportive of young women medical students and was the honorary secretary of a committee in Dublin set up to advise women students with regard to their work and also to help them find suitable lodgings.

In 1899, Dickson married Robert Martin, an accountant (RCSI/IP/Dickson/1/17/3). She gave up her promising career on marriage and went on to have five children, four boys, Russell, Kenneth, Alan and Colin, and one girl, Elizabeth (‘Betty’), from 1901 to 1910 (RCSI/IP/Dickson/3/3/2). The family remained in Dublin and in 1911 were living at 8 Burlington Road. Winifred was listed as ‘Medical Doctor Retired’, while her husband, Robert, was now the managing director for a textile manufacturer. The family then moved to Castlewarden, Co. Kildare, where they lived from 1912 to 1913. Dickson appears to have withdrawn completely from medical society at this point.

Robert Martin enlisted in the British Army in London in 1914 and was posted as a private to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He was posted to Burma from 1917 to 1919 (RCSI/IP/Dickson/3/2/3). He allocated to Winifred 6d per day (just over £9 a year) from his pay and she decided to return to work to supplement this income. Winifred Dickson effectually became the sole breadwinner for the family. She and her family moved to England in 1915 and she sent her children to English preparatory and public boarding schools such as Mostyn House, Cheshire, and St Bees in Cumberland. She secured a post first as an assistant superintendent at Rainhill Mental Hospital in northern England. She chose that post on account of the hospital being close to where her children were attending boarding school, and also because the hours off duty would enable her to study in order to bring herself up to date after sixteen years’ absence from the practice of medicine.

From 1917, she worked as a war locum in Ellesmere, Shropshire (RCSI/IP/Dickson/3/4/5), for Dr. Scott, so that, in her words, she would ‘have a home for you all [her children] during the holidays’. In addition to working in general practice, she also acted as the local medical officer of health. She bought the practice in Ellesmere and took on a male assistant but had to give up her rural general practice in 1919, due to bronchial pneumonia brought on by Spanish influenza and the return of her husband from military service. Instead, she bought a practice in Wimbledon, London, and continued to supervise her children’s higher education and university careers. She and Robert Martin separated and Dickson became solely responsible for her children. For the rest of her life she undertook peripatetic medical work, moving frequently and dogged by illness.

In 1926, as a result of a bout of rheumatoid arthritis, she was forced to give up her practice in Wimbledon and moved to Siena, Italy, to practise. By 1928, she was back in Britain, working in a small general practice at Tunbridge Wells but two years later was forced to give up practice again as a result of pernicious anaemia. However, she undertook locum work for another female doctor and, every winter for the next ten years, undertook a part-time assistantship in a South Wales mining community during the rush months for ten years. In 1940, twenty-five years after her first locum appointment there, she returned to Rainhill Mental Hospital, where she continued to work up until two months before her death. Two years before her death, in a letter to her son Russell where Dickson reflected on her life, she remarked with a hint of regret:

I don’t regret anything, even the foolish things, but I see in countless ways that I missed many priceless chances and opportunities, not from wilfulness but from sheer blind stupidity of not appreciating how much they might mean and lots of things I thought I knew all about and didn’t know there were worlds unknown that I was unaware existed. (RCSI/IP/Dickson/2/1/1/7)

Winifred Dickson died at the age of seventy-seven in 1944 from an incurable carcinoma; however, strong-minded and unselfish as she had been throughout her life, she made no mention of it to her family but continued with her work until within a few weeks of her death. The archival collections at the Royal College of Surgeons provide a glimpse into the extremely promising early career of an exceptional and pioneering woman who graduated at a time when women doctors were very much in the minority, while her personal papers provide an insight into an active and challenging later life, combining her role as mother with that of breadwinner. 

Dr Laura Kelly

Lecturer in the History of Health and Medicine School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde