FICTIONAL FOREMOTHERS BY MEN, 4
Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)
Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr Verrinder Smith
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
‘The Doctors of Hoyland’ (1894) is a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor himself, and best known for his Sherlock Holmes detective tales. The story centres on Dr James Ripley, a youngish doctor who has taken over his father’s general practice in the village of Hoyland in Hampshire. He prefers studying in his spare hours, and has avoided the predations of mammas with hopeful daughters. So far, he has managed to see off professional competitors.
One day, when driving through the village, he spots a name-plate with ‘Verrinder Smith, M. D.’ printed across it. That evening he consults the current Medical Directory and learns that:
Dr. Verrinder Smith was the holder of superb degrees, that he had studied with distinction at Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, and finally that he had been awarded a gold medal and the Lee Hopkins scholarship for original research, in recognition of an exhaustive inquiry into the functions of the anterior spinal nerve roots.
Ripley wonders why such a brilliant man as Dr Smith has come to Hoyland and hopes it is only to bury himself in research rather than practise clinically, but thinks he could be an interesting friend. Accordingly, Dr Ripley pays a call the next day, and is impressed to see an array of elaborate instruments, and many learned books in French and German.
A ‘little woman’ enters, whom Dr Ripley assumes is the doctor’s wife, but when disabused is astonished and repelled, as he ‘had never seen a woman doctor before’ and ‘felt as if a blasphemy had been committed’. He openly disapproves, and argues that ‘"Ladies are in danger of losing their privileges when they usurp the place of the other sex. They cannot claim both”’ and that ‘“I do not think medicine a suitable profession for women and […] I have a personal objection to masculine ladies."’ Dr Smith remains calm and polite in the face of this rudeness, but causes further upset when she points out that Dr Ripley’s paper on `Locomotor Ataxia’, published in the Lancet, while able, was not up-to-date.
Dr Verrinder Smith does practise and is soon widely sought for her ability, thus taking many of Ripley’s patients. There is little communication between them until Dr Ripley falls from his gig and fractures his leg severely. Dr Smith appears on the scene with chloroform and a splint, fixes him and sees him regularly. Somehow unsurprisingly, Dr Ripley starts to admire attributes other than her medical ones, and proposes to her. This approach is misunderstood at first as a suggestion to join the practices; then when she understands, Verrinder says she is only filling in time before taking up a post in the Paris Physiological Laboratory. Dr James Ripley remained a disappointed man.
This later story, furthermore from a medical author, is the most positive, and also reflects that women doctors were now able to qualify in the United Kingdom, as well as have overseas qualifications recognised. Dr Ripley is clearly out-of-touch, but such attitudes have taken a long time to fade. And would he really have supported his wife’s career if the romance had blossomed?